Passport plan puts reform in jeopardy
WASHINGTON - A plan to require returning U.S. citizens to show passports when coming in from Mexico and Canada has become yet another obstacle that could keep Congress from passing immigration reform this year.
Under current law, the government faces a Jan. 1, 2008, deadline to check passports or a still-undeveloped alternative document for everyone crossing U.S. land borders. That leaves about 1 1/2 years to set up new technology to read documents; get out the word about the changes to U.S. citizens, as well as Mexicans and Canadians; invent a new, cheaper alternative for passports; and process what could be a flood of applications.
Critics say it's unlikely the Department of Homeland Security will have either the technology or the personnel by then to carry out the requirements. Lawmakers from states that border Canada won Senate approval to push back the deadline to mid-2009 in that chamber's version of immigration and border security legislation, which passed in May.
But border security hard-liners in the House, which passed an enforcement-only bill last December, say any delays will increase the risk that terrorists could sneak into the country by posing as citizens and crossing either the northern or southern border without showing secure identification.
The dispute is one of a long list of differences between the House and Senate immigration bills. How it is resolved could affect residents, businesses and tourists on both borders.
No passport now
Returning U.S. citizens currently do not have to show a passport unless they are coming from outside the Western Hemisphere (Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia), according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But the CBP recommends U.S. citizens be prepared to present documentation such as a valid U.S. passport, U.S. birth certificate or naturalization certificate.
Advocates for border communities fear tourism will drop off if residents from the rest of the country decide getting passports is too expensive. Beyond that, without new technology to speed up crossings, checking passports or travel cards could lead to long lines, delaying leisure and commercial traffic upon which border economies depend.
"It's going to be hours and hours of lines . . . (Homeland Security's) budget is already very tight for what they have to work on right now, and no money has been appropriated to do anything extra," said Maria Luisa O'Connell, president of the Phoenix-based Border Trade Alliance, which advocates easing crossings to accommodate trade and tourism.
"If (the passport requirement) is not effectively implemented, it's going to really, literally - and excuse the strong word - kill the economy at the border," O'Connell said.
Homeland Security and the State Department are trying to work out rules for implementing the passport requirement, as well as looking for a way to let U.S. citizens comply with the law without having to spend the $97 required to get a new passport.
The project will take more than just regulations, though.
The agencies also must agree on technology systems to quickly read passports or travel cards. In 2004, land borders recorded more than 250 million people in cars alone, including about 190 million on the U.S.-Mexican border, according to federal statistics. So, any process that slows travel will jam the borders.
Canadian authorities also are negotiating with U.S. officials to find a way for Canadians to enter the United States without being required to show their own passports. That could involve a card modeled on the "laser visa" that many Mexican citizens now use to cross the southern border. The laser visa is a secure photo ID about the size of a driver's license that can be scanned and allows travel inside the United States within 75 miles of the border for 30 days.
A Government Accountability Office report in May found that the agencies may have trouble meeting their goals.
"(The Homeland Security and State departments) have a long way to go to implement their proposed plans, and the time to get the job done is slipping by," the study said.
Homeland Security did not request any money to put the program into effect in its fiscal 2007 budget, the report said, and the agency is only in the early stages of a cost-benefit study that federal law requires for any regulation that might cost more than $100 million in a single year.
Meanwhile, the State Department has hired more than 200 new workers to handle passport applications and is working to increase the number of post offices that may accept applications before the law takes effect.
The agencies announced last year that a card-size alternative to a passport, which would cost about $50, would be available by the end of this year, but they have not yet even finished work on a proposal for the card.
Critics fear there won't be enough time for citizens to get passports or the new cards or for Customs and Border Protection agents to be trained and equipped to check every person crossing land borders. Only 26 percent of eligible U.S. citizens have passports, the GAO study found.
"It's only in Washington that 19 months before a deadline, people think there's a problem," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "I would submit that because it's Washington, we know there's a problem. The last thing we want is some half-baked effort right before the deadline."
Officials maintain that they will be ready to start checking passports by Jan. 1, 2008.
"In life, there are only two certainties: death and taxes," said Paul Rosenzweig, policy director for Homeland Security. "Having said that, we believe we are on track."
But lawmakers who represented Northern border communities pushed for delays.
"I don't have a sense that tells me that we've got a coordinated effort here," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who insisted on delaying the passport requirement until June 2009 as the Senate debated its immigration bill.
But the House bill does not change the 2008 deadline, and key lawmakers say they will insist on dropping Coleman's amendment from any final bill.
"I would object," said Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., who heads the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration. "I believe it would probably be the case that the (rest of the) House would object."
The stakes are high for towns near the Mexican border. "It will have a big impact on tourism because people are so used to being able to go across so easily," said Silvia Howard, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Ajo, a major stopping point for tourists heading to Puerto Peņasco in Sonora. Long border backups or lack of passports could send tourists elsewhere.
"We're out here in the middle of nowhere, and we're landlocked, and people come down here to come down to Organ Pipe National Monument," Howard said. "People come to town to see that, and then our neighbor right next door is Mexico. . . . If we lost our tourism through here, our community would really, really suffer."