The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing yesterday on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), the joint effort by DHS and the State Department to create a standardized system of identification for travel within North America. As part of WHTI, DHS and State announced the creation of new PASS cards as part of the Rice-Chertoff Initiative launched in January.
As I have noted previously, this plan began to attract concern among border residents and their representatives in Congress shortly after the announcement. It was a key issue of contention when Canadian homeland security minister Stockwell Day visited Washington last week, as he recounts here. The hearing yesterday offered the latest round of disagreement with the WHTI measures, as recounted by the AP:
Northern lawmakers on Thursday challenged a plan to require passports or a new high-tech ID card for those crossing the U.S.-Canada border, as homeland security officials insisted the new rules won’t create a bureaucratic nightmare.
But the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee questioned whether the agency tarred with most of the blame for the poor response to Hurricane Katrina could properly launch the program.
“We’re certainly skeptical all sitting here, to be very blunt,” said the head of the committee, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
“I sat up here and listened to our post-Katrina analysis and listened to folks at Homeland Security,” he said. “I don’t want to be cynical here but we’re talking about the federal government doing this… We don’t have in place any of these systems yet.”
New York politicians were more blunt, charging the plan would wreck businesses on the border.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the plan would drive down cross-border visits from Canadians attending football games in Buffalo.
“If these new rules prevent or discourage the 15,000 Canadians from coming over to watch games — it would devastate the team. No more sell-out games and ultimately no more Buffalo Bills,” said Schumer.
Having grown up close to the US-Canada border, I’m generally sympathetic to these arguments, and I think there are problems with the current plan; for example, the $50 cost of the PASS cards. But I don’t think that browbeating DHS and State with doom-and-gloom anecdotes is going to solve these problems, especially given the fact that the WHTI was the Congress’s own creation. Sec. 7209 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) in 2004 (which passed overwhelmingly) provided the legal mandate, with clear timetables, for DHS and State to create the WHTI:
The Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, shall develop and implement a plan as expeditiously as possible to require a passport or other document, or combination of documents, deemed by the Secretary of Homeland Security to be sufficient to denote identity and citizenship, for all travel into the United States by United States citizens and by categories of individuals for whom documentation requirements have previously been waived under section 212(d)(4)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1182(d)(4)(B)). This plan shall be implemented not later than January 1, 2008, and shall seek to expedite the travel of frequent travelers, including those who reside in border communities, and in doing so, shall make readily available a registered traveler program (as described in section 7208(k)).
The section goes on to note that DHS and State have no authority to waive these requirements. I think one can make a solid case that these deadlines were unrealistic, in which case the Congress bear equal responsibility for any current woes.
There is a good chance that Congress will move to extend the deadlines, in particular the 1/1/2007 deadline for entry by air and sea (including US-Canada ferry services). The security rationale for the WHTI is still solid, but the relevant agencies need to get this one right, and ensure that legitimate cross-border trade and travel is not unfairly impacted.