Arizona could start issuing new driver’s licenses with radio-identification chips next year that would be used in lieu of a passport at the U.S.-Mexican border.
The licenses also could prove work eligibility under a new state law that requires employers to verify that workers are in the country legally.
Gov. Janet Napolitano and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff signed an agreement Thursday making Arizona the third state, and the first on the Southwest border, eligible to produce enhanced licenses that meet new federal-identification regulations. Washington and Vermont were the first two.
The federal rules already require passports for flying into the United States, including from its North American neighbors. When the rules take full effect next year, they will require passports or other secure documents for land crossings.
Napolitano said the new licenses will be secure enough to serve as proof of work eligibility under the state’s new employer-sanctions law, which takes effect Jan. 1. But the licenses will be voluntary, so Arizonans won’t be forced to get new IDs.
The new licenses will cost about $20 or $25 more than current ones, which range from $10 to $25 depending on the person’s age, the Governor’s Office said. The higher cost is because of the radio-chip technology.
“Arizona will be offering its citizens a comparatively inexpensive and convenient option to satisfy this new border-crossing requirement,” Chertoff said.
The deal must be approved by the state Legislature before the new licenses can be issued. Napolitano said she hopes that will happen next year. The program will cost $4 million to develop and will be paid for out of the higher fees.
“It’s in our interest to move this as expeditiously as possible,” she said.
The licenses’ radio chips will allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to read the cards at a distance, tapping into federal databases to bring up a citizen’s photo, name and date of birth. That should help speed up border traffic, Chertoff said. The radio chips themselves won’t contain any personal data.
The licenses also should help Arizona meet a controversial new federal rule known as REAL ID, designed to make it harder to counterfeit state IDs. Many state officials, including Napolitano, have objected to the rule because of the cost of compliance. Federal officials should have final regulations for the program ready in the next two months, Chertoff said.
Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer said Arizona still expects more federal money to help cover the cost of REAL ID, even though the agreement signed Thursday commits the state to complying with the regulations as soon as is practical.