Members of two Arizona tribes will soon get the chance to do something that other state residents cannot: Walk or drive across the international border without a passport.
The Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday formalized an agreement with the Tohono O'odham Nation to develop a tribal identification card that complies with the requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Colleen Manaher, director of the agency's WHTI program, said Customs and Border Protection officers will honor that card as proof of U.S. citizenship.
A prior accord already has been signed with the Pascua Yaqui tribe.
But that option is not available to everyone else in Arizona. That is because the Legislature specifically barred the state Motor Vehicle Division from cooperating with federal officials to develop an "enhanced" Arizona driver license that, like the tribal ID cards, would meet the security requirements for WHTI.
And this wasn't any sort of fluke: The measure passed the House earlier this year on bipartisan 51-8 margin, though the vote in the Senate was a closer 17-11.
What that means is Arizonans driving back into the country after a trip to Mexico need either a passport or a passport card, a smaller version also issued by the Department of Homeland Security.
The idea of "secure" driver licenses was first discussed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Members of the 9/11 commission recommended - and Congress approved - a mandate to establish requirements for documents for those entering the country. Previously, U.S. and Canadian citizens needed to show only a state-issued driver license or similar documents.
Janet Napolitano, then governor of the state, signed an agreement in 2007 agreeing to have Arizona issue the WHTI-compliant licenses to those who want one. But that never happened after lawmakers learned of what that entails.
Manaher said to comply with WHTI, documents have to be issued in a way to ensure that the person is, in fact, a citizen, and that the document itself be tamper resistant. But what caused the most consternation was the requirement that each document have an embedded "radio frequency identifier device," a computer chip which can be read by passing the card near a scanner.
Rep. Judy Burges, R-Skull Valley, who crafted the measure, said that is an unnecessary intrusion into personal privacy that would allow people to be tracked. She said these chips can be read from as far away as 30 feet.
"They could embed RDID readers in federal buildings and anywhere," Burges said.
"They're small enough they can embed them in furniture, they can put them in the floor, they can put them in the ceiling," she continued. "And they can, in essence, track you as a citizen everywhere you go."
Those concerns spanned the political spectrum, with the John Birch Society and the American Civil Liberties Union uniting to pass Arizona legislation forbidding state enhanced licenses.
Manaher said privacy concerns are unwarrated, even if the information in the chips could be scanned.
"The WHTI cards contain no personal identifiable information," she said. "It's simply a 33-bit number that is meaningless to anyone but the Department of Homeland Security secure database."
Anyway, Manaher said, Arizonans cross travel around with technology that is probably far more revealing than anything in the chip.
"Folks that cross the land border are actually in a vehicle with a license plate, have a global positioning system, have a cell phone or have their Blackberry with Bluetooth (wireless) technology," she said. Manaher said those have much more personal information than what is on the chip.
The deal signed by Napolitano, now the nation's homeland security chief, would not have mandated that anyone get an enhanced license. Instead, Arizonans who wanted to use the licenses to cross the border would have the option of paying an additional fee for one of the cards that met the WHTI requirements.
Burges said those who want to cross the border should get a passport.
That refusal of Arizona to go along does not make this state all that unusual: Manaher acknowledged that so far her agency has agreements with just four states to issue driver licenses that border guards will honor. And all four are along the Canadian border.