By MICHAEL DOYLE
April 15, 2005
Barely a week after his Department of Homeland Security made public the new passport proposal, Bush declared he was uncomfortable with the idea.
"When I first read that in the newspaper, about the need to have passports . . . I said, 'What's going on here?' " Bush told a gathering of newspaper editors. "If people have to have a passport, it's going to disrupt honest flow of traffic."
Bush blamed Congress for the measure, telling the American Society of Newspaper Editors that "evidently this has been mandated in law." In a White House ceremony Dec. 17, Bush signed the bill in question without referring to the new passport requirements.
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security followed up with the formal rule-making proposal needed to put the passport requirement into practice. But Thursday, speaking even as the Senate struggled over adding immigration reform provisions to an Iraq spending bill, Bush suggested some easier passport alternatives might now be developed.
The White House has asked the State Department and Department of Homeland Security about other options, which Bush indicated could include using "finger imaging" for those who cross borders daily.
"I think there's some flexibility in the law, and that's what we're checking out right now," Bush said.
That could be convenient news for at least some of the U.S. residents who cross the northern and southern borders every day. Last year, nearly 100 million people entered California from Mexico through six ports of entry. More than 110 million people enter the United States from Canada through land ports of entry annually.
Others, though, still think passport requirements help protect a world threatened by terrorists, and they question why Bush would want to back away from new border-crossing standards.
Even as he was telling editors that "now is the time for legal reforming of the immigration system," senators were trying to wed immigration reform to Iraq military spending.
The Senate spent most of Thursday in an extended, wheel-spinning quorum call, as leaders negotiated behind the scenes. Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig has insisted on pushing an agricultural guest-worker bill as an amendment to the $81 billion Iraq spending bill unless he can quickly secure guaranteed Senate floor time for full consideration of his bill.
Bush has proposed a different guest-worker program, which is not limited to agricultural workers but which also does not automatically put a worker in line for a green card.
"I don't believe in blanket amnesty; I believe it would be a mistake," Bush said, adding, "I'm under no illusions. This is a tough issue, and it's a hard one."
As made public April 5, the new passport requirement would start Dec. 31 for Americans returning from the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central and South America. Travelers returning home from Canada and Mexico by air or sea would need passports by Dec. 31, 2006, and Americans returning via land borders would need passports a year after that.
Congress set the passport controversy in motion last year, though relatively few people made a fuss of it at the time. The commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had noted the nation's border vulnerabilities, and lawmakers followed up with the new border-crossing requirements.
"Existing procedures allow many individuals to enter the United States by showing minimal identification or without showing any identification," the House and Senate intelligence committees stated, so "additional safeguards are needed to ensure that terrorists cannot enter the United States."
In response, lawmakers ordered the State and Homeland Security departments to "develop and implement as expeditiously as possible" a plan requiring the use of "a passport or other document, or combination of documents," for travel back into the United States by U.S. citizens.
The passport requirement took up less than one page in the 236-page bill. It attracted little attention amid the higher-profile provisions that reorganized U.S. intelligence agencies.
The legislation did offer the White House some limited discretion. The passport requirement can be waived, the legislation states, if the Homeland Security Department concludes that "the alternative documentation . . . is sufficient to denote identity and citizenship."