Trial Run For Border E-ZPass

Foreign travelers will notice few changes getting into and out of the United States while border officials test new radio identification tags at five crossings into Canada and Mexico, including Blaine, Wash., a top Homeland Security official says.

The radio tags will be part of the standard registration process for entering the United States. The wireless technology is nearly identical to that already being used to speed up passage at tollbooths on many of the nation's highways, said P.T. Wright, the operations director for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's US-VISIT Program.

"You're not going to see much change, and that's the key message," said Wright, who joined U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on Monday to demonstrate the new system at the Thousand Islands Bridge crossing from Canada into the United States.

Testing of the radio frequency identification tags is also being done at the Peace Arch and Pacific Highway crossings in Blaine and two crossings in Nogales, Ariz. The testing will run through next summer.

If successful, RFID technology could help relieve congestion for travelers at border crossings, while also helping authorities weed out potential terrorists, drug dealers and other criminals.

"We want to push the border back so that individuals we don't want in this country are not only prevented from entering, but so that they can't even receive a visa," Wright said.

This is the second phase of US-VISIT, the federal government's new screening system launched in 2004 at 115 airports, 15 seaports and 50 of the nation's busiest land crossings into Canada and Mexico. The system requires scanning fingerprints and photographs of the visitor's face into a computer. The radio tags are the next step in the process.

All foreign travelers using visas will obtain their radio tag from U.S. Customs officials when they first register to enter the United States.

The tag is embedded into a document, which the traveler carries with them and presents each time they enter or leave the United States.

About 35,000 vehicles a week use the Alexandria Bay crossing during peak periods, but only about a third of that during the winter months, said Port Director Alan Whitcomb. Alexandria Bay customs officials issued about 300 radio tags over the last week, he said.

The crossing points are equipped with special antennas that read the tags for a secured and coded serial number linked to a database with the biometric and biographic information provided by the traveler.

Before a traveler even pulls up to a checkpoint booth, the guard will know who they are.

The antennas can read the tags up to 30 feet away and recognize as many as 55 different tags simultaneously, Wright said. Ideally, travelers will be able to flash them going by at highway speeds, he said.

The first phase of testing will have a simple focus — to make sure the antennas can read each chip, that the system correctly relays that information and successfully matches it with the government's databases.

In the second phase, which will begin next spring, border agents will use the system at their checkpoints to identify travelers.

If successful, the radio identification tags could eventually be used as a more secure replacement for paper passports, Wright said.

By William Kates

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