By PAUL KORING
Toronto Globe and Mail
January 19, 2006
"We're talking about, essentially, like the kind of driver's licence or other simple card identification that almost all of us carry in our wallets day in and day out," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.
Canada's tourism industry, deeply concerned about the potential economic impact of tightened security rules at the border, is welcoming the news, while warning it is light on details.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Randy Williams, president and chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada. "It's a signal that Homeland Security has got the message that a handy and inexpensive card as an alternative to a passport is needed."
Williams said he expects Canada to announce a matching program. "It's on the Canadian agenda, we have an interest in coming up with a card," he said.
In 2004, Congress passed legislation toughening entry requirements in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, setting a timetable for documents needed by Canadians, Mexicans and returning U.S. citizens.
The legislation included a requirement that, by Jan. 1, 2008, visitors and returning U.S. citizens entering at land borders would need a passport, which only about one in five Americans carry, or an equivalent. The new PASS card is considered an equivalent.
Chertoff said the PASS card, which will be equipped with radio chips that will automatically retrieve the holder's details on the screen of the border agent, is aimed at the tens of millions of border-crossing U.S. citizens who don't have a passport.
"This new People Access Security Service, or PASS, system card will be particularly useful for those citizens in border communities," he said.
It remains unclear whether Ottawa will accept PASS to allow U.S. citizens into the country. It was also not clear whether Canada will unveil a parallel program so Canadians can enter the United States at land crossings without the passports that will be otherwise required by the end of next year.
If, as expected, special lanes will be reserved for PASS holders, Canadians, other visitors and returning Americans without the smart card could be left in long lineups at busy times unless Ottawa matches the program.
"We see it as a trusted traveler program," said Angela Aggeler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department.
She added that if Canada and Mexico joined, other existing bilateral programs such as NEXUS could be rolled into the new system.
Although senior U.S. officials made it clear that they both expected, and hoped, that Canada and Mexico would follow with similar, inexpensive but secure smart-card programs, it was also clear that the U.S. announcement was not going to be delayed while the other two governments dithered.
"That's Ottawa's decision, it's a Canadian decision," said a senior U.S. official when asked if Canadians would be offered a similar card.
Visits by U.S. citizens to Canada are off sharply in recent years, with same-day trips of the short, impulse kind down the most.
The new PASS, despite the promise of reduced cost, was slammed by some groups involved with border issues.
A newly formed coalition of Canadian and U.S. chambers of commerce, named Borders for Economic Security, Trade and Tourism, said it was opposed to any new form of documentation.
"BESTT recommends use of an enhanced driver's license as the standard for crossing," it said in a statement.
Efforts are under way in Congress to standardize drivers' licenses, and include citizenship or residency details in all 50 states. Several Canadian provinces are working with their transborder counterparts on the driver's license initiative.
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