U.S. officials announced Tuesday they would start issuing a special identification card this year that would allow Americans who frequently traveled to Mexico or Canada to continue crossing the border without a passport.
Citing security concerns, the government said last spring that as of 2008 travelers would be required to show passports when they reentered the country from Mexico and Canada. Business and travel groups and residents of border communities objected, saying the plan could snarl traffic and discourage casual travel.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a news conference that the government planned to begin issuing a card that would be “particularly useful for citizens in border communities who regularly cross northern and southern borders every day as an integral part of their daily lives.”
Officials said the card would be about the size of a credit card, carry a picture of the holder and cost about $50, about half the price of a passport. It will be equipped with radio frequency identification, allowing it to be read from several yards away at border crossings.
To obtain the card, officials said that citizens would be required to provide the same kind of documentation needed to obtain a passport.
Some industry officials said they remained concerned that even with the new approach, travel could be slowed and casual tourism discouraged.
Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian American Business Council, said her group was concerned about how the program would be carried out. She suggested a pilot program to make sure the system worked before it was put in place.
“It’s a really good idea to make border crossings more efficient for low-risk travelers, but I’m not sure this gets to it in the right way,” she said.
Her group is worried that the plan might affect trade.
Some travel industry officials had urged the government to delay the passport requirement to make sure Americans were aware that they needed to bring passports when they went to Mexico or Canada.
The passport requirement resulted from the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. In an effort to close holes in border security, it directed officials to create a plan requiring Americans and foreigners to present secure documents when entering the country through Mexico or Canada.
But protest followed. President Bush predicted the plan would “disrupt the honest flow of traffic.”
It has drawn fire from Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, who last month sent Bush a joint letter saying they were “concerned that stringent requirements are being developed that will significantly alter the quality of life and economic prosperity for law-abiding citizens, while terrorists will continue to falsify any ID we put in place.”
Mexican officials also have objected to the plan.
The travel identification card was announced by Chertoff and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as one in a series of proposals intended to secure the borders but to also make sure American and foreign travelers could visit the country without undue hindrance.
Chertoff said that beginning next year, the government would issue only electronic passports, or “e-passports,” which have a computer chip embedded on the cover. The government began issuing the electronic passports in a pilot program late last year. Older passports will be phased out as they expire, officials said.