WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials announced yesterday that they will start issuing a special identification card later this year allowing frequent American travelers to Mexico and Canada to continue crossing the border without a passport.
Citing security concerns, the government said last spring that as of 2008 travelers would be required to show passports when they re-enter the country from Mexico and Canada. But business and travel groups and residents of border communities objected, saying the plan could snarl traffic and discourage casual travel.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a news conference that the government plans to begin issuing a card that "will be particularly useful for citizens in border communities who regularly cross northern and southern borders every day as an integral part of their daily lives."
Officials said the card will be about the size of a credit card, carry a picture of the holder and cost roughly $50, about half the price of a passport. It will be equipped with radio frequency identification, allowing it to be read from several yards away at border crossings.
To obtain the card, officials said, citizens will be required to provide the same kind of documentation that is now used to obtain a passport.
Some industry officials said they remained concerned that even with the new approach, travel could be slowed and some casual tourism discouraged.
Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian American Business Council, said her group was concerned about how the program would be implemented. She suggested that a pilot program be launched to make sure the system works before it is put in place.
"It's a really good idea to make border crossings more efficient for low-risk travelers, but I'm not sure this gets to it in the right way," she said. Her group is worried that the new plan still might impede legitimate trade.
Some travel industry officials previously urged the government to delay the passport requirement to make sure that Americans were aware that they need to bring passports with them when they go to Mexico or Canada.
The passport requirement resulted from the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. In an effort to close holes in border security, it directed officials to create a plan requiring both Americans and foreigners to present secure documents when entering the country through Mexico or Canada.
But many people protested. President Bush has predicted the plan would "disrupt the honest flow of traffic."
It has drawn fire from Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, who sent Bush a joint letter last month saying they are "concerned that stringent requirements are being developed that will significantly alter the quality of life and economic prosperity for law-abiding citizens, while terrorists will continue to falsify any ID we put in place."
Mexican officials have also protested the plan.
The travel card plan was announced by Chertoff and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as one of a number of proposals intended to secure the borders while making sure that American and foreigner travelers can continue to visit the country without undue hindrance.
Chertoff said that beginning next year, the government will issue only electronic passports, or "e passports," which have a computer chip embedded in the cover. The government began issuing the electronic passports in a pilot program late last year.
Older passports will be phased out as they expire, officials said.
Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.