Homeland Security:

Observations on Efforts to Implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative on the U.S. Border with Canada

GAO-06-741R: Published: May 25, 2006. Publicly Released: May 25, 2006.

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Securing the U.S. border has received increasing attention since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For years, U.S. and Canadian citizens have crossed the northern border using documents such as driver's licenses or birth certificates or in some cases without showing any documentation. Border crossings are commonplace; in 2005, for example, an estimated 13 million U.S. citizens crossed the northern border. In the heightened national security environment after September 11, we have previously reported that documents like driver's licenses and birth certificates can easily be obtained, altered, or counterfeited and used by terrorists to travel into and out of the country. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 requires the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to develop and implement a plan that requires a passport or other document or combination of documents that the Secretary of Homeland Security deems sufficient to show identity and citizenship for U.S. citizens and citizens of Bermuda, Canada, and Mexico when entering the United States from certain countries in North, Central, or South America. The act requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of State (State) to implement this requirement by January 2008, and the effort to do so is called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (Travel Initiative). As the statutory deadline for implementing DHS's and State's plans draws closer, questions have arisen about the agencies' progress in carrying out the Travel Initiative. As part of our examination of the Travel Initiative, Congress asked us to provide a status report on the progress these agencies have made. On April 7, 2006, we briefed Congress on our observations to date, which focused primarily on implementation along the northern border. This letter summarizes the information we provided at that briefing. It addresses the following questions: (1) What steps have been taken and what challenges remain in implementing the Travel Initiative by the statutory deadline of January 2008? (2) What challenges have been identified with alternative documents or programs that have been suggested as substitutes for passports or PASS cards under the Travel Initiative?

DHS and State are within 20 months of the January 2008 deadline for implementing the Travel Initiative, and while the agencies have taken initial steps to carry out the program, broad and extensive challenges remain. The steps taken and the challenges that remain fall into five main areas: (1) making a decision about what documents individuals will need when they enter the United States, (2) resolving technical and programmatic issues related to PASS cards, (3) proceeding through the rule-making process, (4) carrying out a cost-benefit study, and (5) managing implementation of the program. Achieving the intended security benefits of the Travel Initiative by the statutory milestone date, without simply requiring all travelers to carry a passport, appears in jeopardy, given the volume of work that remains. The various alternative documents or programs proposed by federal agencies, the business community, and others as substitutes for a U.S. passport or PASS card all present major challenges as well. The suggested alternatives fall into three main categories: (1) frequent traveler programs, (2) driver's licenses with enhanced security features and the capacity to denote citizenship, and (3) day passes.

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