SEATTLE -- Americans and Canadians could face huge lines and delays of 12 hours or more at U.S.-Canada border crossings if an immigration law takes effect as written next month.
Critics say any border jam-up will be the result of Rep. Lamar Smith's crusade to crack down on immigration. Two years ago, Congress passed a provision sponsored by the Texas Republican requiring that border officers check records of all noncitizens entering and leaving the country.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service says it does not have the manpower or the technology to fully conduct such checks, which are supposed to go into effect Oct. 1.
But local officials and business leaders warn that even a half-hearted attempt by the INS to obey the law would cause record delays, with potentially crippling effects on U.S.-Canada trade. They are scrambling to get Congress to change the law.
"If nobody stops this thing, there will be lines of traffic 10 to 12 miles long both directions from each of our three border crossings," warned Mike Brennan, president of the Bellingham, Wash., Chamber of Commerce.
"Even if somebody strikes a last-minute compromise, we've already changed our relationship with Canada. And for what? This is crazy."
Canadians are equally upset by the potential impact of the law.
"This is an absurd law," said Robert Poetschke of the Canadian Consulate in Seattle. "By our calculations, if each check takes two minutes -- which is optimistic -- the wait will be up to 17 hours on the first day."
At issue is Section 110 of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, which requires the immigration service to create "an effective automated entry-exit control system that will record the departure of every alien and match it with a record of arrival."
That means the immigration service would be required to check the identity and visa status of all 9 million people that cross the border at Blaine, Wash., each year -- a task that the agency says is virtually impossible since there is no facility or technology for checking Canada-bound vehicles.
Smith, the chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, quietly added the measure, which does not provide money to set up a border check system.
His critics say Smith added the section to target Mexican immigrants who overstay their visas. But he made it apply to the Canadian border as well. Smith did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
"Basically, Section 110 requires everybody coming in or out of the U.S. to go through a formal computer check," explained Greg Boos, an immigration lawyer in Bellingham. "That may work on the Mexican border, but Canadians have never had to go through a formal process."
When the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce discovered the problem, it contacted congressional staff members. "At first the staff told us, 'You've got to be kidding!' " Brennan said. "Then they read the bill and sheepishly called back to tell us we were right."
Led by Sens. Slade Gorton, a Republican, and Patty Murray, a Democrat, both of Washington, the Senate approved 99-0 an amendment that essentially limits the immigration checks to airports, where it is more feasible. But the House has yet to follow suit, despite the urgings of Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf and other legislators from Washington.
"Smith says the border checks will only take 15 seconds or so per person. But Congressman Metcalf has tried to point out that 15 seconds in a line of 100 cars becomes 15 minutes and then 15 hours," a Metcalf spokesman said. "It just isn't acceptable."
Pub Date: 9/17/98