Passport rules may be scaled back for some border crossers


WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration, facing complaints from border-state lawmakers, is considering scaling back strict passport security requirements for people who infrequently travel between the United States and Canada.

The concession may not be enough for lawmakers who want to delay rules requiring passports or other tamper-resistant ID cards for all who enter the United States beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

The administration may initially address part of what some in Washington call the “Aunt Tilly” problem – occasional visitors to Canadian border communities who might be prevented from returning to the U.S. because they didn’t know to bring acceptable ID. The law applies to U.S. citizens and foreign visitors alike.

“We are working on that, we’re concerned about that, and the last thing we want to do is discourage traffic,” Jim Williams, director of a Homeland Security Department program that monitors international travel to the U.S., said in an interview. “We’ve got to come up with solutions that meet people’s needs.”

Specific plans are still being worked out. Williams said the administration was looking at issuing short-term passes, or one-day passes, for legitimate border travelers who have neither a passport nor the proposed “PASS” card that is being developed.

To people who repeatedly try to cross the border without the right ID, however, “we might say, Look, we won’t let you back in if you continue to do this and not get a passport or card,”‘ Williams said. “We don’t want to discourage that person’s travel, but, on the other hand, we want to move people to where we can identify them.”

The ID rules were part of a 2004 intelligence overhaul law, overwhelmingly approved by Congress, to tighten U.S. borders against terrorists. They have since pitted lawmakers from border states against those from the heartland, strained relations with Canada, and forced Homeland Security to roll out technology and training under a deadline that may prove too aggressive to meet.

Concerns were highlighted last week by Canadian Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, who questioned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff over whether the rules would be ready.

“Obviously I raised concerns, some of the same questions that you raised, in terms of, is it feasible?” Stockwell told reporters in Washington. “Those are concerns of interest, those are concerns neighbors raise because they might be concerned about what their neighbor is doing.”

The rules are not as controversial on the nation’s southern border, where more than 8 million Mexican and U.S. citizens carry laser visas that let them easily travel between the two counties. Those who enter the U.S. from Canada now need only common forms of identification, such as a driver’s license and a birth certificate.

Critics fear the rules will dramatically reduce travel and tourism across the northern border, damaging local economies, as visitors shy away from the $97 cost of a passport. The PASS cards are expected to cost half that much, and perhaps far less, said Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty.

Lawmakers want to delay the rules by up to 18 months to give the administration more time to allay lingering concerns.

“We all recognize the security issues. But there’s practical and economic impacts that me and my colleagues all have been hit with, and we’re sensitive to,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Homeland Security “needs to tell us exactly how this is going to work, exactly what the costs are going to be,” said Coleman, who voted for the 2004 law mandating the border crackdown. “We don’t think we’re at that stage.”

Congress this week is holding hearings on the program – dubbed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative – and a bipartisan group of senators are threatening to push for the delays in immigration legislation that will be considered as early as next month.

Williams said the department is working under “aggressive” deadlines. Still, he said, “I think we can meet the deadlines” to develop the cards, buy and install readers at major border crossings, and train workers how to use them by Dec. 31, 2007.

Others aren’t as optimistic.

“The ability to get the cards out and the cards tested and distributed to the people who need them – I think it’s very much in jeopardy even if they were to step into warp speed today,” said C. Stuart Verdery, a former Homeland Security assistant secretary for border and transportation issues.

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