High-Tech Licenses to Ease Border Travel

A handful of border states will start issuing international travel documents: driver's licenses with beefed-up security and better background checks. The project may make it easier to cross into Canada and Mexico. It has the federal government's blessing.

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Vermont, Arizona and Washington will soon issue their own international travel documents, special drivers licenses for land and sea crossings into Canada and Mexico. These so-called enhanced drivers licenses will be more secure than regular licenses, and they might prove to be the first step toward the higher security licenses required by the real ID law.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE: Becky Loomis is in charge of Washington state's enhanced driver's license project. The first ones will be issued in January, and she says you'll know one when you see it.

BECKY LOOMIS: There will be U.S. flag in the left hand zone, which will also overlap the photo of the individual.

KASTE: You don't usually see American flags on driver's licenses, but these will be special - harder to forge, with embedded radio tags linked to a secure computer data base, and the most important, the bearers will have to be U.S. citizens, and they'll have to prove it. The enhanced driver's license has a lot of the things that anti-illegal immigration groups have been clamoring for.

Ira Mehlman is spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

IRA MEHLMAN: If they can do it for people who want these forms of secure ID, then they can do it universally. And they should be able to screen out people who have no business being in the country in the first place.

KASTE: The thing is, while Washington state has been eager to offer these optional enhanced driver's licenses, it's been resisting federal pressure to upgrade security on standard licenses. Like many states, Washington is bitterly opposed to the 2005 law known as Real ID, which requires the verification of citizenship or immigration status.

Seattle State Senator Ed Murray says Real ID is too expensive and too intrusive, but at the same time, he supports the enhanced driver's license program.

ED MURRAY: The EDL's a license for people who live in Washington who want to quickly cross the border to go to British Columbia to shop. It's voluntary. People pay for it if they want it. And it's not an invasion of the individual's privacy.

KASTE: State officials may insist that this program has nothing to do with Real ID. But that's not how the Department of Homeland Security sees it. Just this week, Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress that the enhanced driver's license system is, in his words, similar and scalable to Real ID.

At a driver's license office in a strip mall in the Washington town of North Bend, about 20 people sit, waiting to have their pictures taken.

NORRIS: All right. I want you to look straight ahead. Okay, and don't blink. Coming at you in five, four, three. Here you go.

KASTE: On a bench just outside is State Representative Glen Anderson. He is one of the few legislators here who think that these licensing offices should be asking tougher questions about people's legal status in this country.

GLEN ANDERSON: It is a change of role and it will require more effort in the beginning. But over time, those processes will become smoother. We've got to have a more reasonable and, unfortunately, a more detailed approach to validating our individual identities.

KASTE: And Anderson expects that the enhanced driver's license program will give the state its first practice run for setting up Real ID.

ANDERSON: You could call it Real ID light, I think, to say that it's not as somewhat disingenuous.

KASTE: As Anderson gives this interview, he's being watched by a couple of men who are hovering around the licensing office door. After Anderson leaves, one of the men steps up.

RICARDO ALOUISI: What is this? What is it all about?

KASTE: It's an Argentine named Ricardo Alouisi. Holding a sheet of papers, he says he's an unofficial guide for the other immigrants who are here trying to get licenses. There are about a half-dozen of them here today from Mexico and Brazil. Alouisi says as far as he's concerned, they're all entitled to driver's licenses, even the ones who are in the country illegally. And when he's told about the Real ID law, he's shocked.

ALOUISI: The law is all signed and everything already?

KASTE: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It just take some time to implement, but, yeah.

ALOUISI: Anytime, it can come at anytime?

KASTE: Alouisi wants to know if Real ID will take effect very soon. He probably doesn't have to worry. States are supposed to implement it starting next year. But so far, only some of them are taking steps to prepare.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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