Before January 2008, United States and Canadian citizens were not required to present specific travel documents when entering the United States through a land or sea port. That meant that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer might only have the traveler’s word on which to base his or her decision to allow someone to enter the United States. Not surprisingly, this practice significantly hampered our ability to quickly verify a traveler's identity or citizenship, determine if they pose a threat, and importantly, hampered our ability to speed legitimate travelers across the border. Every day, CBP encountered hundreds of individuals trying to game the system and pass themselves off as American or Canadian—an untenable scenario that turned each traveler into a potential imposter.
On June 1, CBP will implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), a result of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 and a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that requires U.S. and Canadian travelers to present a secure travel document that denotes identity and citizenship when entering our country. WHTI narrows the list of acceptable identity and citizenship documents to those in which we have great confidence because of their issuance process and physical security features. As a result, WHTI will strengthen our borders as we facilitate entry for U.S. citizens and legitimate foreign travelers – a core component of CBP's mission.
CBP is fully prepared to implement WHTI—we have ensured that you, the traveling public, have a choice among travel documents to best meet your needs; we have installed infrastructure in our ports to make your entry and inspection process go more quickly and more smoothly; and we have worked hard to communicate the new requirements to you well in advance of the June 1 deadline. We have also heard your concerns and made special provisions to accommodate U.S. and Canadian children under age 16—and those under age 19 traveling in school, sports, religious or other office groups—who need only present a copy of a birth certificate or alternative proof of citizenship to enter the United States by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean.
Now we need your help to make these improvements to our border security as successful as they can be. We encourage you to obtain WHTI-compliant travel documents for entering the U.S. on June 1 and beyond. Approved documents include the traditional passport book as well as cards that are equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to make your trip even faster and more efficient: the U.S. passport card, a NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST Trusted Traveler Program card, or a state- or province-issued enhanced drivers license.
RFID-enabled documents are easy to use. When entering the United States from Mexico (or Canada), hold up your travel card (and those of any passengers in your car), drive slowly toward the inspection booth, and stop for an interview with the officer. The automated read of the RFID tag (a unique number that contains no personally identifiable information) links to a secure CBP database. Before you arrive at the booth, the CBP officer can review your photograph, biographic information, and the results of law enforcement checks. By queuing up this information while you’re still driving toward the booth, the officer can more quickly verify your identity and focus more attention on talking to you while shaving 6 – 8 seconds off of the current inspection process. Because all the RFID-enabled travel cards can be read at one time, it saves the officer from having to manually type information about each individual in your car.
We realize that some travelers arriving at the border will not have WHTI-compliant documents. I encourage you to continue with your travel plans and to obtain facilitative and secure WHTI travel documents as soon as possible. U.S. and Canadian citizens who lack WHTI-compliant documents but are otherwise admissible will not be denied entry into the United States on June 1 and during the subsequent transition period.
Obtaining a WHTI-approved document and complying with the law will help make our borders more secure. Getting your WHTI-compliant document will help make your border crossings easier and faster.
For more information on new documents that go into effect on June 1, please visit www.getyouhome.gov.
Jayson P. Ahern
Acting Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Originally published in the May 30, 2009 edition of the Houston Chronicle