BELLINGHAM, Wash. – State and local officials and business people on the northern border would be well-advised to stop fighting the eventual imposition of tougher documentation requirements for cross-border trade and tourism, U.S. Consul General Lewis Lukens said Thursday.

Lukens was a speaker at a conference on border mobility issues, organized by the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. He suggested that people need to get used to the reality that the days of relatively carefree crossings of the U.S.-Canada border are over.

“We’ve been spoiled, there’s no doubt about it,” Lukens said.

Lukens, stationed in Vancouver, B.C., noted that the Department of Homeland Security is already enforcing a passport requirement for travelers entering or re-entering the U.S. by air from Canada and Mexico. He said the imposition of that new requirement last month occurred smoothly, without significant disruptions. He argued that despite the skepticism from many along the border, that requirement can be imposed with similar success at land border crossings – and it will be, as mandated by federal law under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, or WHTI.

“Fighting WHTI is not going to help,” Lukens said.

As of now, WHTI requires that everyone crossing the Canadian border into the U.S. will be required to have a passport or a still-to-be-developed passport card by June 1, 2009, at the latest – although Homeland Security officials say they may be able to lay the technical groundwork necessary to impose that requirement sooner.

But government and business leaders on both sides of the border fear that such requirements will hamper border trade and tourism.

About 3.5 million cars and 600,000 trucks enter the U.S. at Whatcom County border crossings each year, and those numbers have already been beaten down by tighter security measures put in place in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.

Peter Lloyd, Consul General of Canada, warned that ill-advised security measures could cause what he termed a “thickening” of the border that would do economic harm to both countries.

“The consequences of not getting it right will be severe for both countries,” Lloyd said. “Our shared history and friendship is not something that can be taken for granted.”

But Lukens said he rejected the idea that the U.S. wants to thicken its border. “What I prefer is modernizing the border,” Lukens said.

The U.S. State Department is now issuing more than 250,000 new passports per week, Lukens said, and once people accept the new reality and get the documentation they need, border crossing could be easier than ever. He also predicted that border communities’ efforts to fight WHTI passport requirements in Congress will go nowhere. “Post-9/11, there’s been a huge change in the debate in the United States over border and immigration issues,” Lukens said. “When you get away from the northern border, there’s much less concern about the impact of WHTI.”

Trip Atkins, assistant regional director of the Seattle Passport Agency, agreed. He said border business people should be encouraging people to get passports, instead of encouraging them to think they can procrastinate because the passport requirement might go away.

“We’re trying to phase it in over time so we don’t have 100 million people applying for a passport in two weeks,” Atkins said.

An estimated 75 million Americans now have passports.

Immigration attorney Greg Boos challenged Lukens’ assertion that border communities won’t get relief in Congress. He observed that Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., has received bipartisan backing for legislation that would force Homeland Security to slow down on imposing passport requirements.

Lukens replied that Slaughter was one of many border-area Congress members who voted for the original WHTI legislation.

“A lot of people voted for the Iraq war, and now they’re coming out against it too,” Boos shot back. “I believe we’re going to get a fair hearing.”

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