It’s All In The Cards

February 17, 2008
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LANSING — Now that January has come and gone, the U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security have put the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative into play.

That means passports are now required for all persons traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and isles in the Caribbean to enter or re-enter the U.S. A valid driver’s license and birth certificate are now needed to enter the U.S. by land or sea. But even that requirement will change at a later date, which the State Department will announce.

When that day arrives, a passport still won’t be needed for entering the country by land or sea, but travelers will need more than a standard driver’s license and a birth certificate. And there are a few options to a passport available for those who don’t travel by air to one of the locales listed in the WHTI.

One is the federal Passport Card, which costs less than a passport. Two others could be an enhanced driver’s license and ID card issued by the state, if the Michigan legislature passes the appropriate bills.

Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, former Kent County clerk, proposed the enhanced versions of a Michigan driver’s license and ID card in December as a way for residents to meet the new travel standards under WHTI. Both cards comply with the REAL ID Act, a national effort to prevent terrorism, reduce fraud and improve the reliability of state-issued identification documents, and could be used to board domestic flights. Both are optional, meaning the enhanced ones aren’t required for non-travelers, and both are in compliance with the WHTI.

“This plan ensures the integrity of state-issued licenses and helps us to secure America’s borders,” said Land in December. “That’s why we crafted our initiative to provide residents with a convenient option depending on their travel needs.”

Land actually began discussing the idea of creating enhanced IDs in 2005. She noted then that Canada is the state’s strongest trading partner and said the cards would make crossing the borders more convenient for business travelers and tourists.

Name, address, photo, a drivers license number, a social security number, a telephone number, a digitized signature, and medical and disability information are the personal items the enhanced cards will contain, according to the bills that have been introduced in the state legislature.

HB 5537, which amends Public Act 222 of 1972, cleared the Transportation Committee and is in the Senate. SB 964, which mirrors the House Bill, was analyzed by the Senate Fiscal Agency, and the agency’s ensuing report put the maximum application fee for an enhanced card at $50.

“We are hopeful the Senate will take up the bills quickly. The full Senate has to vote on it and then it will go to the House,” said Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State office.

“To make this easier, we’ve introduced identical bills in both chambers, in hopes they’ll both take them up quickly,” she added.

To get either the driver’s license or state ID, an applicant has to provide a full legal name, a Social Security card or a letter of ineligibility from the Social Security Administration, date of birth, proof of Michigan residency, and documentation of a legal and permanent presence in the country.

Business groups and educational institutions have criticized the last requirement and are applying pressure on lawmakers to drop it as a prerequisite.

Chesney told the Business Journal there wasn’t a target date for the bills to become law, but she was hopeful that day wasn’t too far down the road since Gov. Jennifer Granholm has urged lawmakers to make passage of the bills a priority. Just when the Secretary’s branch offices will begin accepting applications for both also is still uncertain.

“At this point it depends on what kind of changes they will have put into the legislation. As the bills were reported out of the Senate, they were given immediate effect. So we don’t know how they will look in their final form yet. So I’m not sure that they will give them immediate effect in their final form,” said Chesney.

“But we’re optimistic that we will be able to offer them next year,” she added.

If someone can’t wait for the state legislature to act on the cards, then a U.S. Passport Card allows the same travel under WHTI. The major difference between the two cards is that the Passport Card doesn’t contain any personal information in the chip. According to the State Department, the card contains a vicinity-read radio frequency ID chip that will be linked to a stored record in a Homeland Security database.

The State Department is billing the card as a less expensive and more portable alternative to a passport. Like a passport, the card will be good for 10 years. But a first-time applicant will pay $45 for an adult card and $35 for a child’s version, about half the cost of a passport.

The application period for the card opened on Feb. 1 at the same locations that accept passport applications. A few of those include the Grand Rapids Main and Northwest Postal Stations; city clerk’s offices in Grand Rapids, Walker, Grandville and Kentwood; the Jenison and Comstock Park Post Offices; and Cascade Township Hall.

WHTI is a result of the Intelligence Reform and Prevention Act that Congress passed in 2004. Other cards that meet WHTI requirements are NEXUS, FAST and SENTRI trusted traveler cards.

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