A requirement that a passport be presented to cross the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico threatened to dampen trade and tourism, while weakening cultural ties. So, it is encouraging that the Department of Homeland Security, with a push from Maine’s senators, will delay the requirement while looking at other, less expensive, forms of identification to serve the same purpose.
An amendment, co-sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, to the immigration reform bill sought to broaden the types of identification allowed under the requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and provide more time for their issuance while limiting the cost.
The amendment would have limited the price of a new identification card, good for 10 years, to $34 and waived the cost for children under age 18.
With the immigration bill stalled, Sen. Collins added language to the Homeland Security Department’s appropriation bill to delay implementation of what is formally called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative until June 1, 2009. The program was set to begin on Jan. 1, 2008. The delay should allow the department time to develop alternatives. A low cost border crossing card holds promise.
As passed in 2004, the initiative required a passport of anyone crossing the U.S. border with Mexico and Canada. Passports cost $107 – more if they’re needed quickly – and only a small portion of the population currently has one.
Requiring passports to cross the border from Canada and Mexico would leave the impression that a big step had been taken to combat terrorism, when in fact this, along with requiring airline passengers to remove their shoes during screening, accomplishes little on that front. Aside from the highly publicized millennium plot suspect, few terrorists try to come into the United States from Canada or Mexico. All of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the United States legally. None used Canada or Mexico as a gateway to the United States. Tighter border restrictions could drive terrorists determined to enter the United States to do so in the vast unmanned woods along the U.S.-Canada border.
Because residents of northern states routinely cross the border into Canada, and Canadians do likewise into the United States, Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna estimated decreased tourist traffic would cost $2 billion a year.
This is more than an economic question – truckers who frequently cross the border already have automated identification systems – though it affects Maine residents who regularly cross the border on business. This is also a cultural issue because family and friends live on either side of the border, churches and social groups may be on either side too.
In the five years since 9/11, Maine has grown accustomed to the idea that its traditionally relaxed border crossings have changed, if not permanently at least for a long time. But that does not mean that high cost and multiple forms of ID are necessary.
Fortunately, DHS now realizes this and is working on alternatives. As Sen. Collins said recently, “It is critical that we strike a balance between the security of our nation’s borders and the free flow of commerce and travel to and from the United States.”
Continuing to look for lower cost alternatives furthers that balance.