U.S. plans to tighten rules on passports

Change to affect travel to several nearby nations

April 06, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw and Meredith Cohn | Gwyneth K. Shaw and Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- By the beginning of 2008, U.S. citizens will need a passport to travel to and from Canada, Mexico and other nearby countries as part of a long-term effort to shore up security along the nation's borders.

The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security announced the changes yesterday, although they had been called for in a sweeping intelligence-reform bill Congress passed last year.

The government will accept comment over the next few months before making the rule final.

Currently, Americans can get into Canada and some other countries -- and back into the United States -- without a passport and often with nothing more than a valid driver's license.

Once the new rules take effect, a passport will be the preferred document, but some other official records will be accepted. Department officials said they expect that list to include several cards that are in use or being developed to offer quick access across the borders with Canada and Mexico.

The program will be phased in in this way:

By the end of this year, a passport will be required for everyone traveling to and from the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central and South America by air or sea.

By the end of 2006, passports will be required for air and sea trips to and from Canada and Mexico.

By the end of 2007, passports will be needed for all air, sea and land border crossings into the United States.

Government officials said the purpose of the change is to make travel more secure by requiring uniform documents and to ease the burden on border agents.

"Our goal is to strengthen border security and expedite entry into the United States for U.S. citizens and legitimate foreign visitors," Randy Beardsworth, the acting undersecretary for border and transportation security at Homeland Security, said in a statement. "By ensuring that travelers possess secure documents, such as the passport, Homeland Security will be able to conduct more effective and efficient interviews at our borders."

Boosting security

The change affects any American without a passport, along with citizens of some other countries, including Canada, who have benefited from a relaxed border-crossing policy with the United States.

About 60 million Americans -- one-fifth of the population -- have passports.

Three years ago, 16.2 million Americans visited Canada and 16.8 million took a trip to Mexico, according to the most recent figures available.

Amanda Knittle, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the group sees the change as a positive move.

"Unfortunately, both Canada and Mexico are potential ports of entry for terrorists. Until now, Americans have enjoyed the luxury of traveling to our neighboring countries without a passport, and we think as long as there is an effective information campaign put into place that this will only enhance the security of people traveling," she said.

Border residents

Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who was one of the main sponsors of the intelligence bill, said yesterday that she wants to see America's borders strengthened but also wants to make sure the new rules don't put an unfair burden on people who live along the nation's vast borders with Canada and Mexico.

"I'm going to continue to watch this unfold very carefully," Collins said. "This matters a great deal to those of us who live in border states. I want to make sure we strike the right balance between security and the right to travel easily for legitimate travelers."

Collins said she wants to ensure that the government makes frequent-traveler cards available to people who live along America's borders. She used as an example her sister-in-law, who is Canadian and travels frequently from Maine across the border with her four children to see their grandparents.

"Are you saying now those four children will need passports?" Collins asked.

Business concerns

Another Republican from a border state, Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, is concerned that the United States might strangle businesses as it tightens its borders. Coleman said he doesn't want to see the country cut off from its trading partners to the north and south.

"This whole issue, for me, is a question of balance," Coleman said. "There's a security issue, but there's an economic security issue, too."

Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group, questioned who will pay for all of those passports -- the current fee is $97 for people age 16 and older -- and whether the change will affect workers who live in one place and have jobs in another.

"On the other hand, we have two very porous borders, and it makes sense to require passports. Getting a driver's license in a number of states is quite easy," Mitchell said. "We are very susceptible here."

Mitchell said that, ultimately, most business travelers will accept the change.

In the end, the new requirement may ease traveling, said David S. Stempler, the president of the Air Travelers Association, a consumer group. But there will be problems.

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