New rules requiring passports or new high-tech documents to cross the US’ northern and southern borders are taking effect today, as some rue the tightening of security and others hail it as long overdue.
The rules are being implemented nearly eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks and long after the 9/11 Commission recommended the changes. They were delayed by complaints from state officials who worried the restrictions would hinder the flow of people and commerce and affect border towns dependent on international crossings.
In 2001 a driver’s license and an oral declaration of citizenship were enough to cross the Canadian and Mexican borders; today’s changes are the last step in a gradual ratcheting up of the rules.
Now thousands of Americans are preparing by applying for passports or obtaining special driver’s licenses containing microchips that can also be used to cross the border.
“It’s sad,” said Steve Saltzman, a dual Canadian-American citizen as he entered the US at the Peace Arch crossing in Blaine, Washington, on Thursday. “This was the longest undefended border in the world. Now all of the sudden it is defended, and not nearly as friendly.”
Near the border crossing, local Blaine resident Mike Williams disagreed: “This concept was past due ... Because it’s not a safe world and it’s becoming more dangerous all the time.”
In one Texas border community, long lines were reported at a local courthouse as people rushed to apply for the required documents. But it remains to be seen if the new requirement will cause traffic backups at points of entry and headaches for people unaware of the looming change.
US Customs and Border Protection officials say they are confident the transition will be smooth.
“Our research indicates approximately 80 percent of the individuals coming in now, US and Canadians, are compliant,” and are crossing with proof of citizenship, said Thomas Winkowski, assistant commissioner for field operations at Customs and Border Protection.
The higher noncompliance areas, he said, are primarily US citizens in the southern border region.
Travelers who do not comply with the new requirements will get a warning and be allowed to enter the US after a background check, said Michele James, director of field operations for the northern border that covers Washington state.
“We’re going to be very practical and flexible on June 1 and thereafter,” James said.
The new rule, which also affects sea crossings, is the final implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. It’s part of a gradual boost in security along the northern border that has featured millions of dollars in upgrades and the hiring of hundreds of more customs officers and US Border Patrol agents.
Winkowski said US Customs and Border Protection would continue its outreach campaign through the summer to inform Americans of the new passport requirement.
Under the new rule, travelers also can use a passport card issued by the US State Department to cross-land borders. The card does not work for air travel. At US$45 for first-time applicants, it’s a more affordable alternative to the traditional passport, which costs US$100. More than 1 million passport cards have been issued since last year.
Identification documents available under the “Trusted Traveler” programs are also accepted. Those require fees ranging from US$50 to more than US$100. These programs, developed by the US, Canadian and Mexican governments, allow vetted travelers faster access to the border.