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05 April 2005

Rule Changes Aim to Make Travel Safer, Simpler, To and From U.S.

Travelers will need passports or other secure documents

By Eric Green
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- In a change from previous law, travel between the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere will now require passports or other secure, accepted forms of documentation, says the U.S. government.

The new requirements are designed to strengthen border security and make it faster and simpler for U.S. citizens and foreign travelers to both enter and leave the United States, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said April 5.

The requirements affect all U.S. citizens traveling within the Western Hemisphere who do not currently possess valid passports.  They also affect foreign nationals who previously were not required to present a passport to enter the United States.  In addition, the rules affect citizens of Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda.

The new plan, called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, is required under a law signed by President Bush on December 17, 2004.  That law, called the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, represents a change for U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries, including Canada, who were not previously required to present a passport to enter the United States.  Other forms of identification, less secure than a passport, had historically been accepted.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said the United States recognizes the implications that the new travel requirements "might have for industry, business, and the general public, as well as our neighboring countries, and they are important partners in this initiative."

Randy Beardsworth of the Homeland Security Department said the goal behind the new travel requirements is to "strengthen border security and expedite entry into the United States for U.S. citizens and legitimate foreign visitors."

Beardsworth, who is his department's acting under secretary for border and transportation security, said that by ensuring that travelers possess secure documents, such as a passport, his agency will be able to conduct "more effective and efficient interviews" at U.S. borders.

The State Department said travelers within the Western Hemisphere are encouraged to obtain a passport because it offers the most security features.  However, the border-crossing card -- also known as a "laser visa" -- will be acceptable as a substitute for a passport and a visa for citizens of Mexico traveling into the United States from across the Mexican border.

Other documents that will be accepted are international frequent-traveler cards, used in programs known by the acronyms SENTRI, NEXUS, and FAST.  Although the three programs vary slightly, they are all based on the same principle of pre-screening and identifying low-risk travelers so they can cross the international border without having to go through the traditional inspections process.

No other document is currently available that will be an acceptable substitute for a passport or the three frequent-traveler cards.

The accepted documents must establish the citizenship and identity of the traveler through electronic data verification, and will include significant security features.  Ultimately, all documents used for travel to the United States are expected to include biometric technology -- such as fingerprint identification -- that can be used to authenticate the document and verify identity.

The new law will be enforced in phases, in recognition that the law represents a significant change in historical practice for many travelers.  The law's first phase, beginning December 31, will apply to all travel (air/sea) to and from the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central and South America.

The second phase, beginning December 31, 2006, applies to all air and sea travel to or from Mexico and Canada.

The third phase, beginning December 31, 2007, applies to all air, sea, and land border crossings.

More information about how U.S. citizens can obtain a passport is available online at: travel.state.gov.

Foreign travelers should contact their respective governments to obtain passports.

Because border communities will potentially be the most affected by the changes, the new law specifically states that the concerns of those communities will be considered.  With this in mind, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security are issuing an advance notice of proposed rule-making in the U.S. Federal Register.  The notice will provide vital information about the plan and request the public's comment on the new rules.

The Federal Register is the official daily publication for rules, proposed rules and notices of U.S. federal agencies and organizations.

The State Department's Maura Harty said the advanced notice of proposed rule-making "will allow these affected publics to voice concern and provide ideas for alternate documents acceptable under the law."

Harty said the "overarching need is to implement this legal requirement in a way that strengthens security while facilitating the movement of persons and goods."

The U.S. government expects to issue a more formal rule about the new travel requirements in the Federal Register later in 2005, following review of the public's comments regarding the first phase of the plan.

The Federal Register is available online at: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/index.html.

More information about the new travel requirements are available on the State Department web site at: travel.state.gov -- or on the Department of Homeland Security web site at: http://www.dhs.gov/.