Your passport: Don’t leave home without it
On April 5 the U.S. State Department unveiled the Western
Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the latest measure to beef
up national security. The initiative proposes a phased-in
requirement for all travelers entering the United States
to have a passport or another approved travel document,
including U.S. citizens returning home.
“It will require all people traveling in the Western Hemisphere that up until now did not require a passport to travel to now hold a passport or other approved document,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection public information officer Mike Milne. Other approved travel documents include a NEXUS or FAST card, and Milne said his department plans to expand those programs.
Today, U.S. citizens, Mexicans and Canadians can cross the border with a photo identification and some proof of citizenship. Milne said the requirement for passports will significantly increase border security because inspectors won’t have a variety of drivers licenses, birth certificates, naturalization papers and other documents to inspect for authenticity when they are determining a traveler’s admissibility. “Passports are the most effective, efficient and safe travel document we can have,” Milne said, because they are a consistent uniform document issued by the federal government. He added the U.S. requirement for machine-readable passports that include a biometric would further enhance security.
The requirement will be phased in, Milne said, first applying to air and sea travel. It is scheduled to go into effect at all land borders January 1, 2008. “From a timing standpoint there’s plenty of time,” Milne said for people who will need a passport to apply for one.
According to Teresa Bobotek, director of the Seattle Passport Office, approximately 23 percent of U.S. citizens now have a passport. “Over 100,000 people apply in Washington every year,” she said.
Applications can be submitted to one of the 6,000 local facilities, like the Blaine post office, that forward them to the national processing center after confirming the applicant’s identity. Bobotek said it takes six to eight weeks to process the application, and expedited service is available for $60 over the $97 application fee. Canadian passports are valid for five years and cost $82 for adults. Passport offices are in Vancouver, Richmond and Surrey, B.C. and processing time is about 10 business days, according to Passport Canada spokesman Dan Kingsbury. He said 11.4 million Canadians, or about 34 percent, hold valid passports.
Milne said that rather than slowing down traffic at the border, the initiative could do the opposite. “It’s more uniform, more secure, it actually speeds the inspection process up,” he said.
In announcing the initiative the state department acknowledged that the measure would impact border towns. “The Departments of State and Homeland Security understand that the greatest potential change will occur at the land borders. The new statute specifically mandates that the concerns of border communities be considered,” the press release states.
Gordon Rogers, deputy director of the Whatcom Council of governments, said mandatory passports at the border wasn't the problem, it was changing requirements that confused travelers and dampened tourism and trade. "It seems every six months there's a new program that tends to complicate and confuse," he said. "Let's pick a universal standard and stick with it. Let's get stabilized and business and tourism will fall in line but don't change it every day, add a national identity card or an iris scan now, or we can't keep up."
An advance notice of proposed rule-making has been published in the federal register and public input is being requested that will be considered in drafting a more formal rule later this year. The proposed rule can be accessed at www.regulations.gov.