New U.S. Passport Rules Loom

From the State Department

Americans are about to face tougher requirements for reentering the United States from some Western Hemisphere countries, and those rules may get even more strict.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Starting in January, Americans flying home from Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean will have to show a passport or other so-called secure ID. Efforts to impose the same requirements on land and sea crossings are proving difficult.

And as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, it will be at least a year, and maybe more than two, before those restrictions go into effect.

PAM FESSLER: The passport requirements were enacted by Congress in response to the 9/11 Commission, which said even Americans should have to prove who they are at the border. Right now that's not always the case. In August, Congressional investigators revealed that they tried repeatedly to enter the U.S. from Canada and Mexico using phony drivers licenses, fake birth certificates and no ID at all.

Mr. PAUL ROSENZWEIG (Department of Homeland Security): They were, with depressing frequency, successful in that endeavor.

FESSLER: In fact, 100 percent successful. Paul Rosenzweig of the Department of Homeland Security says the problem is that Americans can show customs and border patrol agents many forms of ID to gain entry into the U.S., and that's a loophole that terrorists could exploit.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: CVP officers at ports of entry are obliged today to accept, and therefore to understand and recognize as fraudulent, over 8,000 different types of documents. Not just state and province driver's licenses, not just passports, but also baptismal certificates, birth certificates, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

FESSLER: So starting January 23, the Bush administration will require, with a few exceptions, that citizens of the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Bermuda show a passport when arriving by air from anywhere within the Western Hemisphere. But that's the easy part. The more difficult task will be extending the requirement to tens of millions of Americans who cross the border by land, sometimes every day.

That requirement was supposed to take effect in January 2008, but Congress recently extended the deadline until June 2009 because of concerns about how the plan will work. Frank Moss is deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services.

Mr. FRANK MOSS (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Passport Services): We're trying to get this done as quickly as possible, but obviously we do have real issues because we want to make certain that what we issue work.

FESSLER: He and Rosenzweig spoke at a conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Moss acknowledged that a big problem is that only a quarter of Americans now have passports. But he said his department has been working hard to expand that number. He hopes to see it double in the next seven to eight years.

Mr. MOSS: If you need a passport, by the way, we're turning them around more quickly right now than we were a year or two ago. If you apply right now, you should get yours back in about three to three and a half weeks.

FESSLER: And for those who object to high passports costs - about $350 for a family of four - the administration is proposing a passport card. It would be cheaper but could only be used for travel from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. The card would include a radio frequency identification chip that could be read as the traveler crosses a border checkpoint.

But that plan has its critics too. Jim Harper of the libertarian Cato Institute says it wouldn't be that hard to manipulate the technology.

Mr. JIM HARPER (Cato Institute): And if border security isn't looking at you like they're supposed to look at you and talking to you like they're supposed to talk to you, you've defeated the security system.

FESSLER: He and others also raised privacy concerns and fears that the passport requirements might inhibit trade, especially between Canada and the United States. Rosenzweig of Homeland Security said the administration still hopes to impose the new rules by the start of 2008. But Kevin O'Shea of the Canadian embassy said his country welcomes the extension approved by Congress.

Mr. KEVIN O'SHEA (Canadian Embassy): We continually ask the administration make use of this time. Why are you rushing ahead to put in place this land rule in almost a year?

FESSLER: His government wants a more thorough study of the plan's impact, so do many business groups and lawmakers who say they'll be watching closely as the administration's plans unfold.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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