Mexican Border and the New Passport Rules

The U.S. government says about 75 million travelers crossed the northern border in the last fiscal year, less than the 87 million who came by air. Both are dwarfed by the number of visitors crossing the southern border with Mexico: 234 million. One busy point of entry for travelers is Nogales, Ariz.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to the southern border, NPR's Ted Robbins is in Tucson. He visited the port of entry at Nogales, Arizona. And Ted, what's the situation along the U.S./Mexico border?

TED ROBBINS: Well, Melissa, the numbers are very different. Take the 75 million yearly crossings on the Canadian border or even the 87 million air travelers and triple it. Two hundred thirty-four million travelers crossed the southern border last fiscal year, so you can see the potential for problems here is magnified.

BLOCK: And again, the passport requirement for land travelers will not take effect, at least for now, right?

ROBBINS: That's correct. For at least a year, nothing's going to change here.

(Soundbite of traffic)

ROBBINS: At the port of entry in downtown Nogales, it was the usual steady stream of vehicles approaching U.S. customs booths. Drivers are mostly Mexican, and they usually hand over a U.S.-issued secure border crossing card, commonly called a laser visa. Agents swipe it like a credit card. If there's nothing suspicious, the agent asks in Spanish where the driver is heading.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)?

Unidentified Man #2:: Phoenix.

Unidentified Man #1: Phoenix? (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language).

ROBBINS: Inside the Nogales pedestrian crossing, people stand in lines. There are a lot more Americans here, people who parked and then walked into Mexico for lunch, to buy cheap medicine, cigarettes or alcohol.

Unidentified Man #3: Hello.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi.

Unidentified Man #3: United States citizen?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yup.

Unidentified Man #3: What are you bringing bank, ma'am?

Unidentified Woman #1: Well, I had two bottles of tequila. Now I have one because I dropped it.

Unidentified Man #3: You dropped one, huh?

Unidentified Woman #1: And those are dishes, and I have (unintelligible).

ROBBINS: That's it. She enters the country. Right now and for at least the next year while the passport requirement is delayed, U.S. citizens entering here need no identification. Brian Levin of Customs and Border Protection says entry is pretty much up to the agent at the port.

Mr. LEVIN (Customs and Border Protection): The only requirement is that you verbally declare your citizenship to us. If there's any doubt on our part that you're a U.S. citizen, then we'll ask you for proof.

ROBBINS: The people in line at Nogales don't seem to realize that. Every U.S. citizen approaching the customs desk presents an ID without being asked, mostly drivers' licenses from all over.

Unidentified Man #4: (Border Agent, Nogales, Arizona): You're from Georgia?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes.

BLOCK: Ted, it sounds like a lot of these Americans crossing the Mexico border have gotten used to showing ID even if they didn't have to.

ROBBINS: Right. I mean, they are used to showing it at airports, everybody is, and so it seems they're used to showing it at land security checkpoints whether they need to or not. So when the new requirement goes into effect along the Mexican border, I guess travelers will just have to shell out some of the money they spend on prescription drugs or tequila for a passport.

BLOCK: NPR's Ted Robbins in Tucson. Thanks very much.

ROBBINS: My pleasure, Melissa.

BLOCK: And if you're still confused about the new passport regulations, we have a list of what documents you need to travel where at our Web site, NPR.org.

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What You Need to Know About Passport Rules

Passport

Travelers take out their passports before checking in at San Diego International Airport. As of January 2007, U.S. passengers traveling by air are required to show a passport when traveling to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. The requirement was waived until Sept. 30, for those who have applied for a passport. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

A list of documents you can currently use to travel.

All-Purpose Travel Documents

  • Passports
  • Green Cards

Limited-Use Travel Documents

  • NEXUS Card
  • Driver's License

Other Valid Travel Documents

  • U.S. Military Identification
  • Merchant Mariner Document

Proposed Travel Document

  • PASS Card

In January, hopping on a flight to Toronto became more difficult.

According to new rules that went into effect in January, all flyers, including American citizens, are required to carry a valid passport or other "appropriate documents" when traveling into the United States from anywhere in the Western Hemisphere — including Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean and Central and South America. The requirement, however, does not apply to U.S. citizens returning from a U.S. territory — such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

And for those who have applied for passports and have yet to receive them, the requirement has been waived until Sept. 30, 2007.

This plan, which took effect, in January, called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), was announced in April 2005. The changes in passport rules were mandated in 2004, when Congress passed a massive piece of legislation called the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. In addition to reforming intelligence agencies, the act was designed to increase border protection and beef up transportation security.

More specifically, the act stipulated that the Departments of Homeland Security and State revamp their travel document requirements.

Travel by land and sea hasn't changed. A plan set to take effect as early as January 2008 will require that the same rules apply to these forms of travel.

Before that next big adventure to Canada or Mexico, check out this list of documents you can currently use to cross the border:


     ALL-PURPOSE TRAVEL DOCUMENTS


PASSPORT

What It Is: The passport is still the golden ticket of world travel. U.S. citizens can use their passports when returning to the country by air from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda. But not everyone has a passport. Only one-fourth of Americans have a passport.

How You Get It: To get a passport for the first time, you'll need a valid form of photo ID, such as a driver's license, proof of U.S. citizenship and two photographs of yourself. Take those to an approved acceptance facility — that includes post offices, some public libraries, federal, state and probate courts and some county and municipal buildings. If you are traveling within 14 days, you can visit one of 13 regional passport agencies, but you'll need an appointment. (Check out the State Department's site for more information.)

When to Use It: For travel from or to anywhere in the world, by air, land or sea.

I-551 FORM (GREEN CARD)

What It Is: Proof of legal residency in the United States for non-U.S. citizens.

How You Get It: See the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's Web site for details.

When to Use It: Permanent U.S. residents can still use their green cards when returning to the United States by land, air or sea in the Western Hemisphere.


    LIMITED-USE TRAVEL DOCUMENTS


NEXUS CARD

What It Is: A card for travel between the U.S. and Canada only.

How You Get It: The card is already available, but only to citizens or permanent residents of Canada or the United States. You can apply for the NEXUS card by submitting an application and going through a registration process. If you satisfy the eligibility criteria and pass the risk assessments of both countries, you'll be issued a card.

When to Use It: You can use the NEXUS card for air travel in conjunction with the NEXUS air program at participating airports. Just insert the card at self-serving kiosks. You'll most likely also be able to use the card for land and sea travel between Canada and the United States, once those rules kick in.

DRIVER'S LICENSE

What It Is: License to drive issued by your state of residency or the District of Columbia.

How You Get It: Check with your local department of motor vehicles.

When to Use It: U.S. citizens crossing the Mexican and Canadian border by land do not technically need any documentation to enter the United States. All they have to do is assert their U.S. citizenship. But if a border agent questions you, be prepared to show a driver's license. A birth certificate or voter registration card will also work as valid ID.



U.S. Military Identification: Soldiers on active duty who are traveling by land, air or sea on orders are exempt from passport requirements and can use their valid military identification instead.

Merchant Mariner Document (MMD): U.S. citizen merchant mariners can apply for this document with the U.S. Coast Guard. It allows them to return to the United States by air, land or sea from anywhere in the Western Hemisphere when on official business.


    PROPOSED TRAVEL DOCUMENT


PASS CARD: This card is still just a concept under review by U.S. officials. If it does get developed, it would function as a cheaper alternative for U.S. citizens who do not wish to use a passport for travel only by land and sea between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.


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