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Establishing Standard Border-Crossing Documents

Vehicles traveling through the ready lane at a US border crossing.

In June 2009, rules went into effect that more precisely defined the types of documents that may be presented at ports of entry to demonstrate that an individual may enter the U.S. The evolution of documents used by travelers for border-crossing began in the 19th century. Across the years, these documents broadened in use from items that demonstrated admissibility into proof of identity.

When Americans think of a passport today, they often think of a document that proves that they may re-enter the U.S. from abroad and attests to their identity. But for much of the 19th century, U.S. passports were issued primarily to ensure safe passage while Americans were traveling in other countries. Passports were even issued to ships and their crews to ensure safe passage from pirates. Beginning in the 20th century, the federal government narrowed eligibility for passports and expanded their use into a document that attested to the admissibility of individuals to the U.S.

A major event spurred this change. In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated by self-proclaimed anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The nation’s reaction to Czolgosz, who was born in Detroit, Mich., to Polish immigrants, affected immigration law. Fueled by sensational stories in the press, the public grew suspicious of immigrant communities already established in the U.S., as well as incoming immigrants. Congress responded to these fears with legislation. On June 14, 1902, Congress declared that “no passport shall be granted or issued to or verified for any other persons than those owing allegiance, whether citizens or not, to the U.S.” A year later, Congress passed a law prohibiting anarchists from entering the U.S.

For foreign travelers during the early 20th century, certificates of admission were issued that attested to the travelers’ admissibility at designated foreign ports. These were essentially records of pre-inspection abroad. A Treasury Department Circular dated Oct. 7, 1893, designated the ports of entry for immigration from the “Dominion of Canada” and the process for documentation of immigrants. The circular stated that “. . . holders of certificates, duly signed by the Commissioner of Immigration at any of said ports, shall entitle the holders thereof to admittance into the United States without further examination by the customs or immigration officers . . .”

This process was formalized in a binational agreement between the U.S. and Canada in 1894.The agreement authorized a U.S. Immigration inspector to inspect the U.S.-bound passengers at the Canadian port of entry and, if admissible, give them a certificate bearing little more than their name, date and ship of admission.  The passengers then boarded trains for the U.S.  At the first U.S. stop an inspector boarded the train, collected the certificates and then sent them to the office in Canada so they could reconcile the certificates with the manifest. 

Other documents issued to immigrants during this period were becoming a means to identify individuals. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 required inspectors to record physical characteristics, e.g., height, weight, on immigration certificates. Subsequent requirements, introduced by the Geary Act and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1893, made photographic documentation a prerequisite.

These documents also introduced a new function. In addition to attesting to the holder’s admissibility, the documents were now kept by Chinese immigrants to prove that they had a right to stay in the U.S. And in 1928, legal permanent residents were issued an “Immigrant Identification Card” with a photo. This card was green in color.

Beginning in 1914, applicants for U.S. passports had to submit two pictures as part of the process. And in 1926, the Congress acted again to give the Secretary of State broad authority to issue and revoke passports. This power, especially the Secretary’s ability to revoke a passport for national security purposes, was subsequently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1981.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 required officers to establish, at a minimum, the nationality of individuals and whether they are eligible to enter the country. Officers were to examine travelers' documentation of citizenship, such as passports, or in some cases, officers could accept an oral declaration of citizenship. While this act was amended across the years, it provided the basis for determining admissibility until Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, or IRTPA.

Enacted in part as a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, IRTPA required the Departments of State and Homeland Security to develop and implement a plan to require all travelers, U.S. citizens and foreign nationals alike, to present a passport or other acceptable document that denotes identity and citizenship when entering the U.S. For DHS, CBP took the lead and developed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, or WHTI, to address in part the requirements of the law.

WHTI was phased in over several years. WHTI document requirements for air travel went into effect in January 2007. All U.S. citizens and nonimmigrant aliens from Canada, Bermuda, and Mexico departing from or entering the U.S. from within the Western Hemisphere at air ports of entry were required to present a valid passport or NEXUS card, if utilizing a NEXUS kiosk when departing from a designated Canadian airport.

Then in June 2009, WHTI was implemented for those entering the U.S. by land or sea. Individuals were required to present a WHTI-compliant document such as a valid passport, U.S. passport card, Trusted Traveler Program card (NEXUS, SENTRI, Global Entry or FAST), or an Enhanced Driver’s License.

WHTI documents not only advanced security goals of DHS and the nation, they also were an essential element in CBP’s work to facilitate legitimate border crossings. These documents became part of a broader, technology-based network that enabled CBP to manage and even anticipate traffic volumes at ports of entry while determining admissibility and maintaining secure borders.

CBP installed vicinity radio frequency identification technology, known as RFID, to manage traveler verification along land borders. Today more than 18 million individuals have obtained an RFID-enabled travel document. RFID-enabled documents contain an electromagnetic tag that stores data. The data is read via magnetic fields or radio waves. Vicinity RFID technology allows CBP officers to receive an RFID-enabled travel document in advance and to verify identity and perform automated watch list queries without impeding the flow of traffic.

Also at the ports, CBP installed biometric technology capable of quickly and reliably establishing a traveler’s identity. This process ensures the integrity of the entry system while protecting the privacy of travelers. Together this technology and border- crossing documents integrate travel facilitation and security into a seamless process.

Last modified: 
October 5, 2015