COBURN GORE – Joyce L. White, a U.S. citizen living in the tiny Canadian border town of Woburn, manages the only convenience store here.

Coburn Gore has 10 year-round residents. Everyone else is just passing through.

Seventy-five percent of the customers at Pépin’s General Store are Canadian, crossing the few feet into Maine for gas – 21 cents a liter cheaper this week.

Most days White is waved through the border crossings on both sides, a familiar face after years of traveling back and forth. Some nights, at closing, the Canadian border guard on duty calls to ask if White will bring a chocolate bar to his shack on her way home. She does.

That easy relationship is part of the reason she’s leery of a new federal proposal to intensify border security, including requiring everyone to have a passport. Currently, most people only use a driver’s license to get across.

“It would be really weird after five years for that guy to say, ‘Show me your passport!'” White said.

Officially called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and part of a broader effort to increase intelligence and security after the attacks of 9/11, details of the proposal are scarce for now.

In the next week or two, the proposed new rules will be published in the Federal Register, kicking off a 60-day period of public comment.

The basics, so far: By January 2008 everyone crossing into or out of the Caribbean, Bermuda, Panama, Mexico and Canada by air, sea or land will need to show a passport, according to the U.S. Department of State.

For Maine, which shares a 316-mile border with Canada and counts it as its biggest export destination, the implications could be many.

People now flow across the Maine-Canada border for church, for shopping, to visit family. In many ways, requiring a passport to cross up North makes as much sense as requiring a passport to move from Auburn to Lewiston, said Wade Merritt, director of the Maine International Trade Center’s Canada desk.

“If you were an 84-year-old grandmother and you liked shopping at Marden’s, would you bother to get a passport (so you could still shop there)? Probably not,” he said.

Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, also expressed concern. “You can’t take a quick trip, you can’t get a passport quickly. It takes six weeks. You’re not going to do anything spur of the moment,” he said.

Morrison said the change could increase business costs. Eventually, “some jobs may require you to hold a valid passport.”

On Wednesday, the day after news of the proposal broke, Morrison took a quick in-office poll. He was the only one of five people with a passport, the national average.

“It’s absolutely no good for Maine tourism, period,” said Vaughn Stinson, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association. “The Canadian visitor is our largest international visitor here in Maine.”

And when Canadians are not actually stopping here, Stinson believes Maine is the state most frequently used by Canadians as a portal to the U.S. eastern seaboard.

More than 2.5 million people passed from Canada to Maine at the Calais border station last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Another million came through Madawaska and a half-million through Jackman. Due to its small size, Coburn Gore is included in Jackman’s count.

Development officials worry mandatory passports will hurt those numbers, and others.

Maine businesses sent $827 million in goods over the border in 2004, most by truck, according to the MITC. Most frequent: logs, then lobster, then paper.

Canada exported $4.6 billion to Maine, half of that oil and petroleum from New Brunswick that was checked in at the Port of Portland before heading onto market.

New requirements “could potentially slow things down,” said Maine International Trade Center President Richard Coyle. “Am I panicked? No. I just want to hear more.”

There could also be other small changes.

Border towns may have to rethink regional cooperation. Seniors traveling north for prescription drugs will need a passport. So will kids taking class trips.

“Do all school kids have passports? I guess they will in the future,” Coyle said.

One looming question: How many people on either side of the border will apply for a passport before 2008.

“That’s what I think is going to be the biggest problem, everyone waiting until the end, then it’ll be a madhouse,” said Kathy Rodrigue. Six weeks ago she moved from Augusta to Woburn, Quebec, to take over the family business, Motel Arnold.

“It’s good for me,” said Roger Choquette in Woburn, owner of Garage Dépanneur with an Esso gas station. Perhaps he won’t lose so many customers over the Maine border. “I think lots of people get the passport, lots of people don’t.”

Tom Schwerdt stops at Pépin’s in Coburn Gore every few days, crossing the border three or four times a week. The Pennsylvania man is staying with his daughter at Notre-Dame-de-Bois while he looks for work.

He’s been asked to show his driver’s license as proof of citizenship, but not every time.

“The thing is, you never know, you can’t take it for granted. It’s like going out on a date; you don’t know if you’re going out with an axe murderer,” Schwerdt said. His passport is always in the glove box, a holdover from his son attending school in Dublin. He never knew if he’d be called over in an emergency.

He’s OK with the idea of having to show it each time he passes.

White left Kingfield 16 years ago to raise her children in Canada. Her passport expired in 2000 but she still carries it with her every day in a brown velvet case. She learned the lesson after a new guard working the post turned her away one morning. She had forgotten her ID. She had to pedal 5 miles back home to get it.

She’ll apply for a new passport later this year, in anticipation of the proposal.

“I have to get hustling on this,” White said. With her immigration status, and her birth in Germany to a U.S. military dad, it took two years last time to get it processed.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office said the senator added language to the proposed passport requirement to ensure there’s some provision to make passage easy for frequent crossers. Details of that have yet to come out.


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