Weekend Traffic Poses Test at U.S.-Canada Border

It was relatively quiet at the Washington state Peace Arch, the Northern border's third busiest crossing, on Thursday as new border rules took effect. But the real test will come over the weekend, when the number of border crossers generally is much higher.

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CATHY DUCHAMP: I'm Cathy Duchamp at the Peace Arch border crossing in Washington state. This is the third busiest crossing on the northern border with Canada. More than two million people cross here every year. But this morning, with the new ID requirements in effect, there are hardly any lines.

Mr. MIKE BOLES(ph) (Customs Security Officer): Good morning, sir. How are you today?

Unidentified Man #1: Good.

Mr. BOLES: Where are we going.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm going to Seattle to catch a plane today.

Mr. BOLES: Great. Can I get your ID, please?

DUCHAMP: Mike Boles is a Customs security officer on booth duty.

Mr. BOLES: If we do find somebody that's noncompliant, it's going to be somebody that's not a frequent crosser, that's probably from a place that, you know, they haven't heard yet.

DUCHAMP: You know, the people who cross only a few times a year, Canadians coming south for bargain shopping, Americans coming home from a ski vacation at Whistler Mountain, oh, and maybe journalists.

Mr. BOLES: We've been waiting for somebody that didn't have what they were required to have. This is great.

DUCHAMP: Out of 18 people I witnessed coming through, the only one to slow down the line was a Canadian television journalist. He had only a driver's license, and that's not scannable. Border agent Boles had to type his information in a computer manually, which took at least a couple minutes longer. This delay could become a real concern on weekends when the wait already averages two hours, and the number of people without proper ID could mushroom.

Canadian traveler Chris Oldinger(ph) has another concern. He references the inscription on the Peace Arch here. It reads, children of a common mother dwelling together in unity. Oldinger says it doesn't feel that way anymore with the proof of citizenship requirement.

Mr. CHRIS OLDINGER (Traveler): Well, we're neighbors. We're just going across the border, right? You know, I understand that if it's someone coming overseas, then it's required, but not for a neighbor. That's what I think.

DUCHAMP: The Department of Homeland Security is doing its best to pump up the P.R. on the ID requirements. Maybe this new jingle will make travelers feel better.

(Soundbite of information ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) If you're going across the border into the USA…

DUCHAMP: Or maybe not.

For NPR News, I'm Cathy Duchamp in Blaine, Washington.

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Q&A: What New Rules Mean for Border Crossing

Border i i

Beginning Thursday, travelers who enter the U.S. by land or sea from Canada or Mexico must show proof of identity and citizenship at border checkpoints like this one in order to gain entry. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
Border

Beginning Thursday, travelers who enter the U.S. by land or sea from Canada or Mexico must show proof of identity and citizenship at border checkpoints like this one in order to gain entry.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Beginning Thursday, travelers entering the U.S. by land or sea from Canada or Mexico must show proof of identity and citizenship in order to gain entry. Up until now, Americans could basically declare themselves U.S. citizens and cross the border. It was up to the customs officer to decide whether more documents were needed.

What kinds of documents will border agents want to see now? And will agents send you home if you don't have them? Read the basics of the new rules:

What documents should I have with me?

Travelers age 19 and older must provide a passport or government-issued photo ID along with proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.

Many documents prove both identity and citizenship. According to the Department of Homeland Security Web site, they are:

  • U.S. or Canadian passport
  • U.S. passport card
  • Trusted traveler cards such as Nexus, Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) and Free and Secure Trade (FAST)
  • State- or provincial-issued enhanced driver's license
  • Enhanced tribal cards
  • U.S. military ID with military travel orders
  • U.S. Merchant Mariner Document
  • Native American tribal photo identification card
  • Form I-872 American Indian card
  • Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card

However, if you don't have one of these documents, you can show border agents a photo ID such as a driver's license or government-issued or military ID card and citizenship documents such as a birth certificate, certificate of citizenship or naturalization.

Children age 18 and under are required to present only proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.

People who are entering the U.S. legally but are not citizens will be required to show their permanent resident card or other evidence of legal status.

What happens if I have the wrong documents?

No one will be prevented entry just for lack of the right documents – at least for a while.

Those who do not have proof of citizenship are likely to receive a warning. Leaving your proof at home, however, could mean waiting longer at the border as DHS verifies your citizenship.

DHS will be flexible during what is a sort of warm-up for the summer of 2009, when everyone will be required to show a passport, passport card or certain secure driver's licenses to cross the border.

Why the change?

The 9/11 Commission's report suggested more secure documentation for U.S. entry to improve security. Officials say that thousands of people cross the border each year using phony IDs.

Critics say you can expect to wait longer to cross the border. But the initial reports indicate that the change has not led to any unusual backups. That could change in the coming months, however, as customs officers become more stringent about the new requirements.

What does it mean for lines at the border?

Critics say you can expect to wait longer to cross the border. But the initial reports indicate that the change has not led to any unusual backups. However, that could change in the coming months, as customs officers become more stringent about the new requirements.

What is an enhanced driver's license and a passport card?

The government has been developing new forms of ID that would streamline border stops, especially for residents of border states and towns.

Some states have promised to issue new licenses that include a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip. The cards are quickly scanned at the border, and the guard can look at a secure database that pulls up biographic information about the person, including a photo and the results of terrorist/criminal checks.

Washington State is the first state to begin offering drivers the enhanced licenses. Several border states – including Arizona, California, Michigan, Texas, Vermont and New York — are working with the government to also offer them.

U.S. passports issued since 2006 contain RFID chips.

The new U.S. passport card – which the State Department will begin issuing this spring – will be wallet-sized and embedded with an RFID chip that, like an enhanced driver's license, will link to a U.S. government database containing biographical data and a photograph. Unlike the familiar passport book, however, the card may not be used to travel by air.

The government is touting passport cards as a less expensive and more portable alternative to the traditional passport book. The cards are valid for the same length of time as the books — 10 years for an adult, five for children 15 and younger. Adults who already have a passport book can apply for the card as a passport renewal and pay $20. Adults who are first-time passport applicants will pay $45, children will pay $35 — less than half of what a traditional passport costs.

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