As the deadline for tighter border ID requirements nears, some lawmakers say they are worried U.S. ports of entry won't be able to keep pace with an increase in traffic, especially during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
During a recent border forum in Washington, D.C., U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter (D-New York) said she plans to introduce legislation that would delay passport requirements imposed under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) until June 2010, saying the technological infrastructure at U.S. borders won't be ready to handle the “pure chaos” of border delays. She said she is especially concerned with an increase in border traffic during the 2010 Winter Olympics planned for Vancouver, B.C.
The Cascade Gateway, which includes Blaine, Lynden and Sumas border crossings, is one of the busiest commercial and passenger vehicle crossing areas on the northern border. A 2006 study by the International Mobility and Trade Corridor Project (IMTC), a U.S.-Canadian coalition of government and business entities, found that more than 22,000 cars and 3,000 trucks cross through the gateway each day, carrying more than $31 million in daily trade.
“We cannot simply flip a switch and move from having the world’s largest open-border to requiring expensive new crossing documentation,” she said, adding “If WHTI is not implemented properly, it will only compound the current negative trend in commerce across the border.”
Slaughter said this has become clear during the past year as the first NEXUS enrollment center in western New York was not opened until September, 2008 – nine months after the original WHTI deadline of January, 2008 – and that the RFID technology that is critical to the success of passport cards as well as NEXUS cards and Enhanced Driver’s Licenses (EDLs) did not “go live” at the Peace Bridge border crossing in Buffalo until last November.
At other important border crossings in New York state and Michigan, this technology is not set to be working and active until April, less than two months before final WHTI implementation.
This isn’t the first time Slaughter, chair of the House rules committee, has spearheaded efforts to delay passport requirements imposed under the WHTI. In 2007, she was the author of a bill that forced the Bush administration to delay implementation of requirements for all travelers to present a passport at all land crossings.
Newly appointed U.S. Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano, however, said during the forum that the administration would oppose any legislation that would delay a passport requirement at U.S. crossings beginning July 1.
concern – and I told the congresswoman this – is even the introduction
of a bill to delay the effective date will have the psychological
effect of saying, ‘This deadline really isn’t a deadline,’” Napolitano
said. "My view is, the law says June, and I'm going to work very hard
to make sure it goes as smoothly in June as it can."
Bellingham / Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce president Ken Oplinger, agreed.
Oplinger said he doesn’t think the new passport requirements will be a problem at local ports of entry because Washington state has taken a proactive approach to informing residents about passport requirements several years in advance and providing alternative forms of documentation.
Oplinger said Washington is unique as it has the largest number of NEXUS card holders on the northern border. He added that more than 50,000 Washington residents now carry the enhanced driver’s license that features biometric information and allows motorists to travel to Canada from within the state without a passport. Extending the deadline again, he said, may just confuse travelers.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re really going to be confusing people if we put another extension in there,” he said. “Let’s go ahead and move forward on this.”
Oplinger, who also organizes the non-profit Business for Economic Security, Tourism and Trade group, a coalition of businesses and trade associations from the U.S. and Canada, said Napolitano’s remarks are not surprising considering the short length of time she has been in office.
“It’s not entirely fair to ask (Napolitano) to delay something that’s been in the works for four or five years,” he said. “As northern border residents, we need to give this administration a chance to take a look at the lay of the land in order to make crossing the border a more seamless procedure. We all need to reach out to her, including our Canadian friends, to see what we can do together to move ahead with these issues.”
Oplinger, however, said he did have some concerns about the U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA) reconstruction of the Peace Arch Port of Entry facility and whether that project will pose infrastructure problems that could result in traffic congestion. He said he was also concerned that if border agencies take a "hardball" approach to enforcing the new rules during the first few months, it could deter travelers from crossing the border.
“We’re hoping they will do some sort of soft implementation, for some period of time, in which they will conduct informational discussions with folks who don’t have the documentation,” he said. “However, if they’re going to play hardball and rake folks over the coals, at that point I would be more interested in working with Slaughter.”
Benefits will likely outweigh costs
Meanwhile, Donald Alper, director of Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute (BPRI), said during a different border policy conference in Washington, D.C. last month, the economic benefits to Whatcom County as a result of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver will likely outweigh any negative attention that might be generated from border congestion.
“Sure border line-ups might be a possibility, particularly in the beginning and the end, but our studies indicate it will look more like a typical summer day rather than a typical winter day,” he said. “A lot of people are focusing on negatives, but I think having a spotlight on the region will affect it positively, and Blaine being on the border, it will naturally be a part of that spotlight.”
Alper added that if U.S. Customs and Border Protection is able to staff all the booths like they have said they will, Blaine’s border crossings should handle the traffic.
“I’m not saying there won’t be line-ups, but it won’t be a catastrophe,” he said.
Other benefits, he said, include increased tourism but also attracting highly-skilled individuals to Whatcom County when they realize the scenic beauty and quality of life here.
Those individuals, in turn, could help contribute to the area’s technology and information sectors, which tend to produce quality, liveable-wage jobs.
“We’re too hung up on the border being a disaster,” he said. “But assuming we’re just dealing with a huge event with the Olympics, drawing people from all over the world and if our infrastructure is going to be up to speed like they say, things won’t necessarily be all that bad.”