Passport Rules May Be Scaled Back for Some
WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is facing a rebellion by northern
border-state lawmakers who want to push back deadlines requiring
passports or tamperproof ID cards from all who enter the United States.
In a bow to lawmakers whose states neighbor Canada, the Homeland Security Department is considering easing some of the rules for infrequent
border crossers. But many in Congress, backed by Canadians, say the
compromise isn’t enough, and are pushing to delay the restrictions, set
to take effect in 2008, by 18 months.
The administration may initially address part of what some in
Washington call the “Aunt Tilly” problem — occasional visitors to
Canadian border communities who might be prevented from returning to
the U.S. because they didn’t know to bring acceptable ID. The law
applies to U.S. citizens and foreign visitors alike.
“We are working on that, we’re concerned about that, and the last
thing we want to do is discourage traffic,” Jim Williams, director of a
Homeland Security Department program that monitors international travel
to the U.S., said in an interview. “We’ve got to come up with solutions
that meet people’s needs.”
Specific plans are still being worked out. Williams said the
administration was looking at issuing short-term passes, or one-day
passes, for legitimate border travelers who have neither a passport nor
the proposed “PASS” card that is being developed.
To people who repeatedly try to cross the border without the right
ID, however, “we might say, ‘Look, we won’t let you back in if you
continue to do this and not get a passport or card,'” Williams said.
“We don’t want to discourage that person’s travel, but, on the other
hand, we want to move people to where we can identify them.”
The ID rules were part of a 2004 intelligence overhaul law,
overwhelmingly approved by Congress, to tighten U.S. borders against
terrorists. They have since pitted lawmakers from border states against
those from the heartland, strained relations with Canada, and forced
Homeland Security to roll out technology and training under a deadline
that may prove too aggressive to meet.
Concerns were highlighted last week by Canadian Public Safety
Minister Stockwell Day, who questioned Homeland Security Secretary
Michael Chertoff about whether the rules would be ready.
“Obviously I raised concerns, some of the same questions that you
raised, in terms of, is it feasible?” Day told reporters in Washington.
“Those are concerns of interest, those are concerns neighbors raise
because they might be concerned about what their neighbor is doing.”
The rules are not as controversial on the nation’s southern border,
where more than 8 million Mexican and U.S. citizens carry laser visas
that let them easily travel between the two countries. Those who enter
the U.S. from Canada now need only common forms of identification, such
as a driver’s license and a birth certificate.
Critics fear the rules will dramatically reduce travel and tourism
across the northern border, damaging local economies, as visitors shy
away from the $97 cost of a passport. The PASS cards are expected to
cost half that much, and perhaps far less, said Assistant Secretary of
State Maura Harty.
Lawmakers want to delay the rules by up to 18 months to give the administration more time to allay lingering concerns.
“We all recognize the security issues. But there’s practical and
economic impacts that me and my colleagues all have been hit with, and
we’re sensitive to,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (news, bio, voting record), R-Minn.
Homeland Security “needs to tell us exactly how this is going to
work, exactly what the costs are going to be,” said Coleman, who voted
for the 2004 law mandating the border crackdown. “We don’t think we’re
at that stage.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (news, bio, voting record),
D-N.Y., said Homeland Security “is listening and is beginning to
understand our problem, but we’re not going to rest until there’s a
solution that solves it.”
Congress this week is holding hearings on the program — dubbed the
Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative — and a bipartisan group of
senators are threatening to push for the delays in immigration
legislation that will be considered as early as next month.