Passport Requirement Postponed

June 22, 2007

Marc Heller — Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

WASHINGTON — A requirement for passports or similar documents at the Canadian border will not take full effect until next summer, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.

Mr. Chertoff made official what he had already hinted at in a recent interview with reporters: That despite his department’s vow to put the rule into effect as planned next January, the government needs extra time to design a new land crossing passport card and handle a rush of applications from would-be travelers.

In the meantime, the department announced it would continue to accept birth certificates and driver’s licenses, for instance, but would stop simply taking oral statements of citizenship next January.

The decision includes travelers entering from Mexico and the Caribbean basin.

Wednesday’s announcement also included a cost-benefit study asserting that the document requirement would have less than a 1 percent impact on regional economies. The department said it did not specifically examine the effect on small businesses, however, and it estimated the total cost — including forgone travel and government expenses — at $3.3 billion over 10 years.

Lawmakers who have opposed the document requirement, called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, had a mixed reaction.

Rep. John M. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, called the delayed requirement “a step in the right direction” but added that he and other lawmakers will keep pushing for a delay until June 2009.

He also cast doubt on the department’s economic analysis, which was based on expected declines in cross-border traffic but did not consider “entities” such as small businesses because the requirement does not apply to them directly. The department said seven of eight case studies, including one for the Buffalo area, showed less than a 1 percent effect on jobs or economic output.

“Those entities, as they so bureaucratically describe them, are real people trying to make a living,” Mr. McHugh said.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrats of New York, welcomed the delay.

“The good news here is that DHS realizes that their current plan for initiating WHTI won’t work, and that it’s high time they ditch these ridiculous deadlines and instead come up with a reasonable plan for phasing-in the program that ensures both security and cross-border commerce,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement.

Mrs. Clinton added, however, that “kicking the can down the road is not a solution.”

“While national security, and in particular, security at our borders, must continue to be paramount, it is crucial that any new travel requirements be sensitive to the potentially serious impact on tourism and the regional economy,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who has been among the most outspoken opponents in the Senate, predicted the same passport backlogs could plague the department next summer.

“WHTI in the hands of DHS is like a skydiver who jumps first and tries to pack his parachute on the way down,” Mr. Leahy said. “Today’s huge passport backlogs, prompted by the launch of DHS’s requirement for air travel passports, are just a taste of the chaos that’s likely next summer when they want to start enforcing passport checks at our land and sea borders, which account for ten times the volume for air travel.”

The department also said that it would apply the rule to travelers 16 years and older but would accept other documents for youths as old as 19 as part of educational groups, for instance, that submit lists of participants to Customs and Border Protection.

Canadian citizens visiting the United States would also be required to present passports, although frequent travelers from either country could present FAST or NEXUS cards, for instance.

The department also elaborated on its policy for boaters and cruise ships. Recreational boaters would continue to use video phones, and in some cases telephones, along the northern border to report their arrival in the United States, the DHS said.

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