Seneca signs on to Enhanced Tribal Cards

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. – The Seneca Nation has entered into an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to develop an Enhanced Tribal Card for use as a travel document in compliance with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative – a post 9/11 federal government effort to secure U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico.

A signing ceremony formalizing the agreement took place Sept. 10 at the symbolically appropriate Rainbow Bridge, which connects the cities of Niagara Falls, N.Y., U.S.A, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

WHTI is aimed at documenting U.S., Canada and Bermuda citizens who didn’t need passports to enter or re-enter the U.S. prior to 9/11. The new security identification documents went into effect at U.S. land and sea ports of entry June 1, and at airports in 2007. Approved documents include passports, U.S. passport cards, trusted traveler program cards and state- or province-issued enhanced driver’s licenses.

Under the Seneca’s agreement with Homeland Security, the nation will develop its own ETCs that will also be accepted at entry ports. The cards will be similar to enhanced driver’s licenses and new passports containing embedded computer chips that can be swiped through readers like credit cards.

The agreement was signed by Seneca Nation President Barry Snyder Sr. and Thomas S. Winkowski, assistant commissioner, Office of Field Operations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS.

“This agreement is significant for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that it will not hinder our ability to cross the border. More importantly, this agreement stands in recognition of Seneca Nation sovereignty,” Snyder said. “This agreement demonstrates recognition of our sovereign right to develop our own Seneca Nation Tribal Identification cards, with enhanced features that will be accepted by DHS and CBP for border crossing by our membership.”

The Seneca Nation has 7,800 enrolled members.

Snyder also referred to the 1794 Jay Treaty, which guarantees indigenous peoples free passage across the U.S.-Canadian border.

“In partnership with the United States, I am proud to say the Seneca Nation is doing its part to promote homeland security while preserving our aboriginal and treaty rights. I know that only good will come out of this, because we need to move forward and work with all governments,” Snyder said.

The Seneca Nation is the third tribal nation to join the WHTI. The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona have already joined in the federal government effort. CBP is currently working with approximately 25 tribes across the country on the ETC initiative.

Leslie Logan, a Seneca spokeswoman, said the nation is looking to the federal government for funding because the cost of designing and producing the ETCs is prohibitive.

“Also, we are firmly tied to the language of the Jay Treaty that says we have free passage over the border and if we’re required to have this card and it costs something, then that does away with our free passage.”

Matt Chandler, DHS acting deputy press secretary, said the department has no plans to fund the ETCs.

“In terms of cost, currently the Department of Homeland Security does not have appropriations for a grant program for the Enhanced Tribal Cards. U.S. Customs and Border Protection will provide non-financial technical assistance so the tribe or their vendor can produce a card that will work at the land borders.”

The Seneca Nation is one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Other confederacy members are working toward adopting the ETC standards.

According to Chief James Ransom, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe is actively negotiating an agreement with Homeland Security; he said the tribe was planning to upgrade its tribal identity cards anyway.

“We feel the quality is not where it needs to be because we had a 17-year-old who was able to modify the card and the fact that that happened shows we need more security features on it.”

St. Regis hopes to use the ETC for more than a travel document. The cards will be used at the nation’s health clinic, for voting and for other activities requiring identification.

“We want to get the most value out of it. We need to find other ways it can be used by the tribal government without being intrusive on the individual,” Ransom said.

But some tribal citizens may not buy into the new system.

Adrianne Jacobs, an enrolled St. Regis citizen, has a U.S. passport, a St. Regis tribal ID card, and a “red card” from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, which certifies her Indian status. She’s not likely to use an ETC on her frequent trips to Canada.

“I just use my passport now because I feel I have less of a hassle than I do with my other identification.”

She said some of the border officials are difficult.

“Just because I’m young and I’m Native, I’ve had some hassle with them myself. There are some guys who’ve been there long enough so they know the Native people, they know you’ve just left work and you just want to get home. The ones who aren’t so nice, it’s more of an attitude. They ask the same standard questions, but they’re more accusatory and they come off aggressive or suspicious. Maybe they need some sensitivity training.”

DHS has extended a “transition period” to allow tribal nations time to develop ETCs, and will advise the tribes in writing when the transition period ends, Chandler said.

But once it ends, citizens of tribal nations that don’t develop ETCs will need to have a passport, enhanced driver’s license or other WHTI-complaint document to enter the U.S.