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Originally published Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

New border requirements bolster security, ease traffic

Washington residents shouldn't be nervous as the June 1 implementation deadline for the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative nears, writes C. Stewart Verdery, former Homeland Security assistant secretary. The changes will ease border crossing of people and freight while keeping people safe.

Special to The Times

AMID the economic crisis and other issues affecting the day-to-day lives of Americans, it is easy to forget about terrorism and the threats that led to a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a slew of new security measures.

Add worries that new border document requirements are going to impact the Pacific Northwest economy, and it is no wonder that the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is making some Washington state residents nervous. As WHTI nears a June 1 implementation deadline, it is worth cutting through the rhetoric and reminding ourselves why WHTI was enacted and why it will bring new efficiency to the border.

While our law-enforcement relationship with Canada is excellent, it is simply unacceptable to leave pre-9/11 loopholes in place at our borders — land, sea, or air. That is why Congress in 2004 ended the exemption that allowed American and Canadian citizens, and those falsely claiming to be such, to enter the U.S. without secure identification.

Maintaining the ability for cross-border traffic in locations such as the Blaine, Point Roberts, Lynden and Sumas ports of entry to flow freely is an economic imperative. Border communities have rightfully complained that ports of entry often do not have enough lanes and inspectors to keep wait times to acceptable levels.

So Congress stepped in to ensure that DHS and Department of State changed the rules only once significant money had been invested to modernize travel documents and border infrastructure. In addition, the stimulus bill enacted in February contained hundreds of millions of dollars to improve ports of entry, including money for ports in Washington. Several ports of entry are also being rebuilt to handle the expected increase in travel related to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

WHTI is part of the solution, designed around the concept that shaving even a few seconds off each inspection will help reduce gridlock at the land border. So DHS and the State Department built a cheaper, easier-to-carry passport card that can be used instead of a traditional passport for crossing land borders. By including a vicinity Radio Frequency Identification Device chip, the card links to secure databases, allowing border officers to determine a traveler's citizenship and identity before the car stops in front of their booth. Officers can read multiple cards simultaneously, including an entire car full of people. Our busiest 39 ports of entry will have the equipment in place to read these cards by June 1.

Almost 1 million Americans have received their passport cards, a great bargain at $45 for new applicants, $35 for children, and $20 for those already with passports.

Washington state has also led the way on the Enhanced Driver's Licenses (EDL), an even cheaper option, which can be obtained during your normal driver's license application. Four other border states — Arizona, Michigan, New York, and Vermont — have shown the foresight to implement EDL's, which have the same technological features as the passport card and around 120,000 customers to date. Canadian provinces are offering EDL's to their citizens who also will need a secure ID.

As the June 1 deadline approaches, border residents should know that DHS does not plan a draconian crackdown at the border on day one. U.S. Customs and Border Protection will warn people who arrive at the border without the right documents and later give ample notice before a tighter enforcement regime is mandatory.

Bringing modern technology to the border is overdue. While WHTI is not a silver bullet for all of our border issues, the program will enhance the Pacific Northwest economy and close off a dangerous weakness in our border security.

C. Stewart Verdery Jr. served as assistant secretary for Homeland Security from 2003-2005. He is a partner at the Monument Policy Group, a consulting firm with offices in Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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