Chertoff Insists Passport Plan Is A Priority

Chertoff insists passport plan is a priority
Congress resists idea for Canada, Mexico crossings

Hearst News Service
Dec. 21, 2007, 12:11AM

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Thursday said the Bush administration would press forward with plans to require passports for anyone crossing into the U.S. from Mexico or Canada despite a move by Congress that delays the mandate until June 2009.

“I want to get as close as possible to getting this implemented as I can during this president's term in office,” Chertoff said, during a meeting with Hearst Corp. executives at the Hearst Tower in New York City.

At issue is the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative's requirement that travelers entering the U.S. by land or sea show passports or other approved documents to border officials.

The passport requirement became law in 2004 and was originally set to take effect this Jan. 1. But Congress has delayed the rule several times at the behest of border-state lawmakers who say the requirements are too cumbersome and would mean major changes for people accustomed to easily crossing the U.S.-Canada border to shop and work.

As part of a massive spending bill approved Wednesday and expected to be signed into law by President Bush members of Congress delayed the passport requirement until June 1, 2009, at the earliest.

Buying 'breathing room'

Chertoff on Thursday lashed out at the lawmakers who pushed for the postponement and said they were more concerned about the bottom line of businesses than in keeping the nation's borders secure.

Critics in Congress, including Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., have complained that the passport requirement will cause major headaches for residents who live along the U.S.-Canada border and are accustomed to easily traveling between the two countries.

Leahy, who helped champion the latest delay, said it would buy “breathing room” for the government to develop “better and more sensible answers for border security.”

Critics say the U.S. passport with its pricetag of $97 for anyone over 16 is too costly for many residents who live along the border and who may travel in and out of the U.S. frequently. Congressional critics complain the federal government has been slow to develop inexpensive alternatives to the passport, such as a U.S.-issued border-crossing card.

The federal government has already phased in part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that requires U.S. travelers returning by plane from Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean to show a passport.

The Department of Homeland Security also is moving ahead with plans, effective next Jan. 31, that require U.S. travelers to show proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, and government-issued ID to enter the country, rather than relying on travelers' own statements that they are U.S. citizens.

Cut back on documents

Chertoff defended the passport requirement, saying it would streamline the assortment of documents that are now presented to border inspectors.

“It is impossible to expect our border inspectors to be able to verify that all of these different kinds of ID are genuine,” Chertoff said. “The way to correct it is to reduce the number of documents (that can be used as identification at the border) and ultimately require that they have certain security features.”

Fence and open door

Chertoff said that the tightened travel requirements complement other efforts to beef up security on the U.S.-Mexico border, where construction is under way on nearly 800 miles of fences and vehicle barriers.

“Delaying this documentation requirement is keeping the door to illegal immigrants open,” Chertoff said. “It is a little silly to spend a lot of money building a fence when you're kicking the door wide open and saying anybody can come in if they can wave a piece of paper that they can (easily counterfeit).”

Several states, including Washington and Arizona, have entered agreements with DHS to issue new “enhanced” ID cards that could be used in place of passports for the border crossings.

Chertoff has said talks are under way in Texas, California and Michigan for similar hybrid licenses.