Enhanced license aims for speed at borders

May 15, 2009
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Some 6,000 Michiganders have applied for the enhanced driver’s license since mid-April, according to a spokesman for Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land.

“We’re thrilled with the positive response,” said Land spokesman Ken Silfven. “It’s understandable. They are so convenient.”

The license is touted as a way to speed border crossings with a June 1 deadline looming for stricter documentation re-entry into the U.S. for land and sea border crossings with Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean.

Like other new travel documents put into place after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the EDL contains a chip for radio frequency identification that is read from as far as 30 feet from a border crossing station.

Available for $45 for an enhanced license or $30 for an enhanced state identification card, the cost is less and the two- to three-week turnaround time is faster when compared to obtaining a Passport Book from the U.S. Department of State.

There is no requirement to purchase an enhanced license. But for border states such as Michigan that have citizens who cross international borders frequently, enhanced licenses are expected to save time, Silfven said.

Arizona, California, Texas, Vermont and Washington also either have introduced enhanced licenses or are planning to do so, according to the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Gone are the days when revealing a birthplace, a wave and a smile was all that was needed for a U.S. citizen to motor back home from Canada.

As of June 1, under Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative regulations, U.S. citizens will be required to present documents when re-entering the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the 17 nations of the Caribbean, whether the mode of travel is air, land or water. U.S. citizens have needed passports to return from international air travel since 2007.

Ron Smith, chief spokesman for the DHS in Michigan, said U.S. citizens have several choices for that documentation. It comes down to personal preference, cost and needs, he said, but there are other considerations, as well.

 The choices:

**Official U.S. Passport Book, for U.S. citizens crossing international borders by air, land or water. It is required for U.S. citizens to re-enter the U.S. after international air travel. Renewal is required after 10 years for adults, five years for minors under age 16. The cost is $100 for a Passport Book alone for a first-time adult applicant.

**U.S. Passport Card, for U.S. citizens coming back into the U.S. by land or water only from countries participating in the WHTI agreement. The card has the same period of validity as the U.S. Passport Book. The cost varies, but a first-time adult applicant would pay $120 for both a Passport Book and a Passport Card. The cheapest way to get the card is $20 if you already have a Passport Book.

**The Enhanced Driver’s License, such as the one that recently became available for U.S. citizens who reside in Michigan. The cost is $45. It’s only available to U.S. citizens who are residents of about a half-dozen border states.

**DHS’ Trusted Traveler programs include NEXUS, a cooperative program between the U.S. and Canada for frequent travelers, American and Canadian, between the two nations. U.S. citizens must apply, undergo a background check and submit to a personal interview at centers such as those in Sault Ste. Marie, Port Huron or Detroit. Applicants may be denied if the background check reveals law-breaking, such as a driving under the influence, Smith said. The card expires after five years and costs $50. Card-holders are allowed to use dedicated traffic lanes at any land border crossings along the Canadian border, as well as expedited marine reporting. Smith said NEXUS is aimed at frequent travelers such as commuters.

**SENTRI is another Trusted Traveler program for U.S. citizens who frequently cross the border back into the U.S. from Mexico. The application process is similar to that for NEXUS, but it is not a cooperative program between the two countries. SENTRI also offers dedicated traffic lanes at land crossings for frequent travelers. The cost is $122.25.

**For foreign citizens who are legal residents of the U.S., the Green Card continues to serve as the travel document for re-entry, Smith said.

Children age 16 and under who are U.S. citizens need only present an original or copied birth certificate to get back into the U.S. Specialized documents are available for commercial truckers, Native Americans, military members and merchant marines.

“The biggest difference would be for the NEXUS is the possibility you could be denied a NEXUS card,” Smith said, in which case the traveler might want to consider the EDL or state ID. If the traveler crosses the border with Canada only a few times a year, the EDL may be the cheaper and faster choice, he added.

“The Passport Card, that’s for folks whose state doesn’t offer an EDL. It offers pretty much the same thing,” Smith said. “If you have a passport already, it’s considered a renewal and it’s only $20.”

For example, a resident of Ohio — which does not offer an EDL — who often drives to Canada for business might be interested in the Passport Card, he said.

If a U.S. citizen tries to cross the border back into the U.S. without documentation after June 1, they’ll still get in, he added. But there could be a considerable delay, as DHS border officials must verify identity.

The EDL is the solution, Silfven contended. “The whole idea is to speed up border traffic, so you don’t have to pull up to the border area and fumble for various documents, a birth certificate, a passport or what not,” Silfven said.

The entire system has moved toward a system backed on RFID technology. Border stations are equipped with readers that scan the RFID chip for a number coded into the license’s chip. The number is read by a computer at the border station and used to connect to a secure database, so that no personal information is transmitted between the enhanced license and the border station. The new RFID cards come with protective sleeves to prevent unauthorized access to the numbers, but the cards themselves carry no personal information.

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, has objected, arguing that anyone with a reader could gain access to the numbers. It also objects on privacy grounds to the government’s creation of another number, in addition to the Social Security number, that represents personal information.

But Silfven said the numbers that are transmitted would be meaningless to hackers and the protective sleeve prevents unauthorized RFID reader access.

“The chip itself doesn’t contain any personal information,” Silfven said. “All that’s on the chip is a unique identifier number, so if on the off-chance somehow, someone could get a hold of that number, it would be meaningless.”

Other than the ACLU’s concerns, the Michigan measure to create the enhanced licenses and ID cards drew broad, bipartisan support, Silfven said. The Detroit Regional Chamber and Michigan United Conservation Clubs supported it.

“State and federal lawmakers were on board, a lot of business groups and our Canadian friends were a part of it. Everyone had an interest in it because they could see the benefit,” Silfven said. “It goes beyond customer convenience when you consider how much Michigan has at stake economically. We do $70 billion in trade with Canada (annually) and that’s just Michigan.”

Only Michigan residents who are U.S. citizens are eligible for the EDL. The applicant must bring identifying documents to one of the Secretary of State’s SUPER!Centers or certain other offices. In Kent County, the only Secretary of State’s office that accepts the applications is at Centerpointe Mall.

Those who already possess a Michigan driver’s license or state ID must bring proof of a valid Social Security number, such as a Social Security card, a W2 or 1099 form or a pay stub, plus proof of citizenship, such an original, certified birth certificate, a current passport or passport card, or certificate of citizenship or naturalization. The current Michigan driver’s license serves as proof of identity and Michigan residency.

Other documents are required for proof of identity and Michigan residency for those who do not already have a Michigan license or ID.

See www.michigan.gov/sos, www.cpb.gov and travel.state.gov for more details.

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