WASHINGTON – Easy movement across the world’s longest demilitarized border has enabled Canada and the United States to forge the largest trading partnership in history. But a pending rule aimed at strengthening security threatens to smother cross-border commerce, its critics claim.

Members of Congress from border states have been vocal in their opposition to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative – dubbed the “passport rule.” The Canadian government has vigorously lobbied Congress and the Bush administration to change it.

But the Department of Homeland Security – with a mandate to fight terrorism, not foster commerce – is forging ahead with the initiative. Under its terms, Americans returning from Canada will need “a passport or other document, or combination of documents, deemed by the secretary of homeland security to be sufficient to denote identity and citizenship” to enter the United States, beginning on Jan. 1, 2008.

The language is from the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act approved by Congress last year. The argument is over its interpretation.

But only 23 percent of Americans have passports. The rest would be barred from crossing the border. Critics of the plan warn that instead of going to the trouble and expense ($97) of securing a passport, many casual travelers will simply go elsewhere, which would be economically devastating to communities along the border.

“This is not just a handful of politicians crying wolf,” said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y. His congressional district includes a long stretch of the border that stretches from Lake Ontario to the Vermont state line. “This has real on-the-ground implications.”

What’s at stake, say McHugh and other opponents of the rule, is the accustomed ease in crossing the border for recreation and shopping that Americans and Canadians have enjoyed for generations. Nearly $2 billion in business is conducted across the border daily, far and away the world’s largest bilateral trading partnership.

No one on either side of the border denies the need for security, but critics of the plan question whether it really will enhance public safety – as securing a passport is not a large obstacle for determined, well-financed terrorists – or merely make crossing the border more difficult for honest citizens of both countries.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff testified at a Senate hearing last week that a passport need not be the only document accepted by border agents.

“We’re looking for some alternative that would satisfy the requirement of accurate documentation,” Chertoff told the Judiciary Committee, in response to a question from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

“Frankly, a card – and we all carry cards in our wallet, I carry a driver’s license – a card seems an efficient way, particularly for people on the border, and I well understand there are people who go back and forth multiple times a day,” Chertoff said.

But DHS has not said what kind of alternative identification would satisfy the requirement. One possibility that has been mentioned is the “Real ID,” based on a law passed in May that requires all states to secure the same information from applicants for driver’s licenses.

But that leaves out citizens who are too young to drive or choose not to have a driver’s license. In any event, the Real ID standards are not required to be in place until May 2008 – four months after the travel initiative takes effect.

Another problem with Real ID is that it “doesn’t address the issue of Canadians coming south,” McHugh said. That has caused a great deal of concern north of the border.

“If we don’t get this right, it will be a real inhibitor to the free flow of travel which has enriched both countries so much,” said Frank McKenna, Canadian ambassador to the United States.

“We want to respect the U.S. concerns, but we’ve got to understand them better” before the Canadian government can issue documents that conform to the travel initiative McKenna said.

In any event, McKenna said, any new document is likely to be “simply a passport in another name that has to be applied for,” which would pose a logistical challenge. The “documentation required isn’t going to just find its way into the hands of” the casual traveler, crossing the border for a day’s recreation or shopping, he said.

“We really believe the folks at Homeland Security are reasonable,” McKenna said. But he wondered aloud whether the document would deliver “more security or a false sense of security. … Canadians want security, too.”

Both of New York’s senators – Schumer and fellow Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton – have been actively opposing the implementation of the rule.

“I hope that we can have a bilateral solution that obviously ensures a safe northern border, but recognizes the realities of life along our shared border,” Clinton said this past week. “Everyone has to accept the reality that a passport requirement is onerous.”


(Peter Lyman can be contacted at peter.lyman(at)newhouse.com)

AP-NY-10-25-05 1314EDT

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