WASHINGTON – New identification rules for crossing the United States-Canada border are causing lingering confusion and distress among local and state officials and business owners in Maine.
At issue is a 2004 law that required the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State to develop a plan for all travelers – U.S. citizens and foreigners alike – to present a passport, or other citizenship document, when entering the United States.
The law drew a border state protest that has federal officials scrambling to accommodate frequent border-crossers and locals confused about when the tough new standards will go into effect.
“On the emotional level, it’s almost like having the Berlin Wall,” said Calais City Manager Linda Pagels. “I know it’s nowhere near as bad, but it’s that kind of feeling.”
Members of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ staff planned to make themselves available Wednesday to discuss border issues at Bernardini’s Restaurant in Calais, where citizens from both sides of the border will voice concerns about border crossing regulations.
Because passports are costly to obtain, and because the new system did not address the unique needs of border states, such as Maine, where frequent travel across the border is crucial, Collins, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, got language added to the Homeland Security Department’s funding bill that delays the program, originally set to begin in January 2008, providing time for the department to develop alternative forms of identification.
The tougher rules now must be in effect no later than June, 2009. However, the rules could go into effect earlier. If departments can complete the details of the new IDs, the rules would take effect three months after the finalization.
The departments have broadly agreed on a “Passport Card,” or PASS Card. The credit card-size identification would include the bearer’s image, full name, date and place of birth, passport card number, dates of validity and issuing authority, and fit easily into a wallet, according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Compared to a passport, which can cost more than $100, the PASS Card could cost just $45, although exact prices have not been made official yet.
But the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security still must agree on details, said Wendell M. Hannaford, senior policy analyst for the Eastern Regional Conference of the Council of State Governments. These include criteria such as the cost of the card, the way of dealing with school buses of children crossing the border, and the technology used in the card.
“It does not seem likely to me that they’re going to meet all of those criteria before the deadline,” Hannaford said. “So in effect, the June  deadline is when it will probably become effective.”
Confusion over when and how the new identification requirements will take hold is causing distress in border cities, such as Calais, where people cross the border to go to work, see a movie and buy groceries.
“People are just taking it personally because most of the times when people cross that border they’re doing personal business, and they’re being stopped in the process of doing something personal,” said Pagels.
Canadian Bill Francis has owned a gift store and year-round Christmas shop in Calais for 20 years, crossing the border every day to get to work from his home in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. Not only has he seen a drop in the number of tour operators crossing the border, he also has talked to many Canadians who feel unwelcome to the United States with the coming changes.
“It’s not a one-way street here,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of tour operators out of Halifax and Detroit, and all of a sudden they won’t think about crossing the border. It’s too much of a hassle.”
Francis has been in contact with Collins about the new border requirements for more than a year now. He believes the new plan makes a lot of sense.
“People who aren’t on the border don’t even think about it,” he said, referring to the way people who live in a border city live. “We know that it’s got to be an open border.”