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Don’t Leave Home Without It

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"What we did wasn’t just for us, it was for every single tribe in America,” said Pascua Yaqui Tribal Chairman Peter Yucupicio.

He’s talking about the first-in-the-nation creation of an Enhanced Tribal ID card, the key part of a program now successfully under way among the tribe’s 18,000 members, who are settled in almost every U.S. state. Pascua Yaqui is the first federally recognized American Indian tribe to develop a border-crossing document that is in full compliance with mandates of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). “When Homeland Security requirements started to become more complex and laws began to change, we began to see increased problems with our people going north and south across the border with Mexico,” Yucupicio says. “The Yaqui, Tohono, Zuni and Apache tribes have a long history of cross-border travel for family visits, a pattern established with the very beginnings of our legends, but times have changed.”

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, security on all U.S. borders was tightened in many ways, including the new requirement that all travelers entering the U.S. present a passport or other acceptable identification documentation. Enforcement of that requirement began June 1, 2009, just as the Pascua Yaqui tribe entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to create an Enhanced Tribal Card (ETC). Bonnie Arellano is tribal liaison for CBP Field Operations: “If you look at the 560-plus tribes across the country—and the 22 nations I represent in Arizona—many (such as the 250,000 members of the Navajo Nation) have no tribal identification document. This Enhanced Tribal Card is a way for WHTI and Homeland Security to work together with nations in coming up with a process that works well as a travel document and can also be used for a variety of purposes within tribal confines.”

Pascua Yaqui council members began work on such a document as early as 1998 in an effort to facilitate the travel of tribal members who want to come and go across the Mexican border without having to go through the whole screening process each time. Tribal authorities worked with both the American and Mexican governments, but progress was slow. “You can’t do it alone. You need the blessing, trust and cooperation of all the agencies involved,” said Yucupicio.

That happened when Border Security Program Manager Arellano, who lived and worked in Indian country while growing up, came on board as the first tribal liaison for CBP Field Operations. “I was able to connect the dots from this side to the Department of Homeland Security and get things done a whole lot quicker. We really hit the ground running with the proposed Enhanced Tribal Card because the urgency to get this done was there.”

The free card identifies the holder as a tribal member, provides a physical description, name, date of birth and a unique tribal enrollment number, as well as a photo and a fingerprint impression. The fingerprint is important because it allows a quick swipe and scan at a port of entry. “The Enhanced Tribal Card works in conjunction with any existing tribal ID cards,” said Arellano. “It’s like having two credit cards with different limits. The ETC is the gold card because while it enhances travel, it also allows a look at the tribes themselves, a card that’s theirs, something they can relate to, that also serves as a security document within the confines of their nation.”

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These cards are better than a passport issued by the federal government. Once the card is scanned, the carrier is immediately allowed across the border. No immigration person fiddling with your passport, or even taking the time to stamp it.

Many holders of the Pascua Yaqui card used it for identification in the last Pima County election and could be a boon for the Navajo Nation, which already has a Department of Motor Vehicles—but no tribal ID card. “There are all kinds of things you can do with this. Why not take the ETC and easily turn it into an Enhanced Driver’s License? Or as an assist to tribal law-enforcement personnel,” Arellano asked. “The technology is like buying a burger and putting your bank card in front of a pad that automatically charges you. Can you imagine what you could do with that from a tribal standpoint? It could facilitate so many things going on there—like health services—where your fingerprint card serves in place of a signature or an X for identification. We’re not just talking about homeland security at the border, we’re talking about a national perspective of what it could accomplish.”

The cards are easy to get. “Enrollment appointments are a daily ongoing function of our department and are currently booked two months in advance,” according to tribal Enrollment Director Marisela Nuñez, who said about 800 of the 4,000 reservation inhabitants have already had cards issued to them. “It takes about 45 minutes to go through the application-photo-issuance process. Once everything has been processed, we push the data through the Homeland Security Virtual Private Network and within seconds, the card is validated and activated. We don’t see any redundancy here between our regular tribal ID card and the ETC. The Enhanced Tribal Card allows for problem-free border crossings whereas the tribal ID card still requires checking and waiting at border stations.”

Then there’s the cost of the card program. Or rather, the lack of costs. “We reimbursed our start-up costs with FEMA and BIA funding,” said Nuñez. “Every time I meet with nations, I pose the question: If you’re going to create a card, why not create something that works for you and works for all the rest of us at the same time…and let FEMA pay for it?” said Arellano. “If you talk with any nation of any size, they’re having issues with people moving in and claiming they are Native but can produce no ID documents. Why not seize this moment? This is a chance to own your nation, to control it, by saying to your members: ‘FEMA’s going to pay for this, so let’s get everybody on the rolls with the same documents.’?”

From one end of the country to the other—what about the Canadian border? Bryan Kegley of the CBP Field Operations office in Washington, D.C. said: “I’ve not heard of a uniform card that has been created there yet, although two Northern Border tribes are working on a Memorandum of Agreement and the Kootenai are scheduled to go into production sometime soon. (Despite the success of the program, some tribes are less than enthusiastic about a universal identification system, especially one that involves the U.S. government; concerns range from privacy issues to those of sovereignty.)

“Interest in this program is increasing and because we were the first to build a template, we’re becoming an information clearinghouse for other tribes,” said Nuñez. “We’re working with tribes in the San Diego area who have visited us for a demonstration. We’ve consulted with and offered advice to representatives of the nearby Tohono O’odham Nation as well as officials from the Salt River and Oneida tribes. There’s no need for them to reinvent the wheel because we’ve already built the prototype, and it works.”