Localleaders call for delay in border ID requirements

Published on Thu, Feb 23, 2006 by eg Olson

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Local leaders call for delay in border ID requirements

By Meg Olson

State legislators are asking for more time and more planning before a passport or similar secure travel document is required of everyone crossing the U.S. border.

“I have freely crossed that border my entire life,” said representative Kelli Linville (D Bellingham), chairing a February 16 joint state senate and house of representatives work session “I hope there is some way to focus on a simple way the average citizen is not impeded from the freedom they have always experienced crossing the border and continuing our relationship with the people of B.C.”

The work session explored the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), with which the departments of state and homeland security (DHS) are putting into action a 2004 congressional mandate that requires all travelers, including U.S. citizens to present “secure travel documents” at the border by January 2008.
New Rules For ID

“The goal is to strengthen security and facilitate entry into the U.S.,” said state department representative Trip Atkins. Historically, a resident of North America can cross the U.S. border with photo identification, and a birth certificate or naturalization papers are accepted as proof of citizenship. Atkins said there are over 50 types of drivers’ licenses in the U.S., and 7,000 entities able to issue birth certificates, making these documents easy to counterfeit. “We’ve spent millions of dollars on border technologies,” he said. “If we continue to maintain a loophole that exempts travelers from standard screening it could lessen the effectiveness of the other border security measures.”
The proposed new policy, still under review, is to require a passport or a new border crossing card, the People Access Security Service, or PASS, card. “We realize this plan will have the greatest impact at land borders and we realize the U.S. passport is not the best solution particularly for communities along the northern and southern borders,” Atkins said.

Addressing concerns over cost and convenience Atkins said the wallet-sized PASS card would cost $50 or less and could be applied for anywhere a citizen could now get a passport. It would be available only to U.S. citizens. Other documents that could be accepted as secure travel documents might include membership cards for registered traveler programs like FAST and NEXUS. “We’re working with congress, the business community, the travel industry and the public most affected to make sure the rule makes sense,” Atkins said.
Security vs. economics

Antonio Ginatta, executive policy advisor to governor Christine Gregoire, pointed out it wasn’t documents that led to the only apprehension of a terrorist at the U.S/Canada border, “it was well-trained staff.” Economies along the border, however, faced another serious potential threat: the impact on the U.S. economy, as estimated by the Canadian Tourism Commission, would be a loss of $785 million from 2005 to 2008 due to a passport requirement, before the rule even goes into effect. “The rules are not final but that message is not reaching people,” Ginatta said.

Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Ken Oplinger said adding the PASS card, which he called “passport-light,” did not address the basic problem that the additional identification requirements proposed would further dampen cross-border travel and trade. “There would be a tremendous drop in traffic to our area and we’re very concerned about it,” he said.

Local economies on either side of the border are meshed together, Oplinger said, as evidenced by the number of B.C. plates parked at local malls, or the people who, like his wife, commute across the border to work. “That is how integrated our cultures and economies are,” he said.

Only 23 percent of U.S. citizens and 40 percent of Canadians hold passports, Oplinger said. A U.S. passport costs almost $100 and it takes between six and eight weeks to get one. Prices and processing times are similar for Canadians. While the PASS card might be cheaper, “It still is probably out of bounds for most families, especially those who don’t make plans six to eight weeks ahead of time,” Oplinger said, and it is not available to Canadians. “It doesn’t address spontaneous travel at all.”

The success of the NEXUS program, still with only 80,000 enrolled after four years, and FAST, where only six percent of those who qualify have enrolled, calls into question the idea that the PASS card would get widespread use, Oplinger said. “To suggest that as many as 21 million might obtain it is beyond the realm of possibility.”

Oplinger said tightening regulations at the border have already deterred cross-border trips, down 20 percent since 9/11. “A lot has to do with wait times, hassle, uncertainty,” he said. “Just the discussion of the WHTI will initiate even greater declines.”

Hugh Conroy of the Whatcom Council of Governments said that with a stronger Canadian dollar they would have expected to see an upturn in the ten-year pattern of declining cross-border traffic. “That certainly hasn’t happened,” he said, with traffic numbers flattening or even declining. “This trend adding new ID requirements will only add to it,” he said.

From the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University David Davidson said through their research “it became clear that the major impact would be felt in Whatcom County. Over half the tourism revenue in Whatcom County is associated with Canadians.” A Canadian Tourism Commission study projected the county would see day visitors drop by 6.8 percent with the implementation of a passport requirement, Davidson said, which translated into an annual impact of $10 million for Whatcom County. “Half those Canadians don’t go further south than Blaine, Lynden or Sumas,” he said. “It really seems a lot of the impact will be localized in those border communities.”
More secure licenses

Speakers from state and local governments, business organizations, and policy institutes agreed the timeline for implementation of the WHTI needed to be adjusted to allow it to be coordinated with a section of a May 2005 emergency appropriations bill providing funds for the “war on terror,” defense, and tsunami relief. The Real ID Act of 2005 requires states to conform to tighter federal standards when issuing drivers’ licenses, including establishing the legal status and residence of the applicant in the United States, by May 2008. “If by then our state has not complied we would need a passport to get on a domestic flight,” Oplinger said, a strong incentive for agencies and people to get a conforming drivers license.

Oplinger said that coordination with RealID requirements could ensure more people have an affordable and convenient piece of accepted identification to cross the border. “What it really says is each state will have to adjudicate the status of the person in the country,” he said. “You’re really not that far from saying ‘this is your nationality’ and putting it on the card.” He added if the states of New York, Michigan and California complied with the RealID act and requirements the state department would develop to qualify the license as a secure travel document, “90 percent of the problem would be addressed.”

Ginatta said he understood the state department’s position to be that they were focused on implementing WHTI by the January 2008 deadline and that didn’t leave enough time to integrate with the RealID Act. “To hear that artificial deadlines are driving policy is not where we need to go,” he said. Atkins confirmed that they considered the two separate pieces of legislation as two separate mandates with separate deadlines for implementation and different agencies responsible.

“This impacts so many states and millions of people. Is there any discussion of delaying or the ability to coordinate better with Real ID?” asked representative Deb Wallace (D) of Clark County. “This seems completely out of control.”

Blaine police chief Mike Haslip also asked for more time to implement the right solution. “Given the potential economic and cultural impacts it is critical that the timeline imposed by law does not result in hasty implementation,” he said. Haslip, who has worked as a seasonal inspector at the border as well as in local law enforcement said he saw the need for more uniform identification requirements at the border, but Blaine has seen hasty implementation of programs have an adverse impact on the community, as in the case of the VACCIS cargo inspection system. Haslip said poor communication and not enough discussion led to placement of the VACCIS unit that “severely impacts the daily travel of hundreds,” and potentially the public safety of thousands if trains block emergency vehicles.

State representative Glenn Anderson (R- Issaquah) is president of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, which brings together elected officials from both sides of the border to promote regional economic health. “We need a more thoughtful, integrated approach at the federal level,” Anderson said. “The whole Pacific Northwest, we’re used to our populist libertarian go-as-you-please attitude, the reality is that unrestricted travel we’re accustomed to will no longer exist.”

Atkins said he would convey the message from panelists and legislators to his agency. A formal rule is expected to be released this spring which will trigger another public comment period prior to final adoption of the policy.