By Michael Doyle and Emily Bazar
April 06, 2005
The crackdown along borders that have long cultivated openness could complicate casual tourism and heavy commerce alike, officials acknowledge. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress and the White House have been emphasizing security over convenience.
"We recognize the implications this might have for industry, business and the general public," Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty conceded Tuesday.
But Harty, who oversees consular affairs, added "the overarching need is to implement this . . . in a way that strengthens security while facilitating the movement of persons and goods."
The movement is abundant.
The San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego, for one, has been branded the busiest land border crossing in the world. Every day, about 55,000 people enter the United States through San Ysidro by car and another 25,000 to 35,000 enter by foot, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Mike Milne said.
It's not clear how many of these border crossers are American, Milne added. The San Ysidro crossing, in turn, is only one of many on the U.S. northern and southern borders.
"There are some million people a day crossing the border from Mexico to the United States, which presents a common issue," President Bush said last month, following meetings with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. "That is, how do we make sure those crossing the border are not terrorists, or drug runners, or gun runners, or smugglers?"
Congress ordered the new passport requirements as part of a sweeping intelligence reform bill passed last year and signed by Bush in December. By publicizing the specific requirements 2 1/2 years before they are to take effect on Jan. 1, 2008, administration officials said Tuesday, they hope to provide ample planning time.
"It will cause a slowdown in some parts of tourism temporarily, or maybe for a long time," said Pete Patel, manager of Universal Travel in south Sacramento, Calif. "There are a lot of people who are taking a weekend cruise or getaway to Mexico. Now they have to prepare themselves. That adds a lot of pressure."
Patel noted that trips to Mexico comprise 20 percent of his firm's sales. Many of his customers travel south without passports, he said, and he predicted many won't like the added time and cost of applying for a passport.
Travel agents, too, will face new inconveniences, Patel cautioned.
"We have to inform the traveler when they're making their reservation," he said. "That means additional work for us."
Currently, U.S. residents returning from Canada need only present a driver's license or other government-issued identification card. Americans returning from Mexico can currently present a photo I.D. plus proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or naturalization certificate.
These relatively lenient standards came under scrutiny by the national commission established to investigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. When Congress considered the 9/11 commission's recommendations last year, most of the heated political debate surrounded proposals like establishing a new national intelligence director's position.
More quietly, lawmakers used the same bill to boost border control efforts. The intelligence reform bill authorizes 2,000 additional Border Patrol officers by 2000 and 8,000 additional immigration detention beds. The bill mandated, as well, that the administration develop a plan to require "a passport or other document" for all those entering the United States.
"Additional safeguards are needed to make sure that terrorists cannot enter the United States," the House Intelligence Committee stated in explaining the passport requirements.
The provisions excited little public controversy, as the intelligence reform bill passed the House by a 336-75 margin and the Senate by an 89-2 margin.
The resulting Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, as the Bush administration calls it, covers all travelers to and from North and South America, the Caribbean, Mexico and Bermuda.
Besides passports, the administration says that the frequent travelers should be able to use existing cards called SENTRI, NEXUS and FAST cards. The administration also indicated that border crossing cards are likely to be acceptable as a substitute for Mexican citizens.