WASHINGTON - Joan Roberts carries her passport everywhere she goes. As the owner of Brewster’s Restaurant along the Canadian border in Point Roberts, Wash., she crosses back and forth between the two countries at least twice a day.
As deadlines shift and Congress and the White House seem headed for a showdown over new border security regulations, Roberts says carrying her passport is the safest way to ensure she doesn’t have any problems.
“There is a lot of confusion,” she said. “It’s very frustrating. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Roberts is not alone. From the Peace Bridge in upstate New York to the Detroit-Windsor tunnel in Michigan to the busy Blaine crossing in Washington state, the effort to tighten border security by requiring formal identification to enter the United States is causing uncertainty.
Congress says the Department of Homeland Security has bungled implementation of the new rules. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the problems, including a backlog of an estimated 3 million passport applications, are only a “hiccup,” and the threat of terrorists crossing the borders is too great to delay the new rules.
Meanwhile, a pilot program in Washington state to offer new, enhanced driver’s licenses as a form of border ID is attracting national attention. Washington will become the first state to offer such driver's licenses, and state officials say they could issue 300,000 in the first 18 months of the program. Liz Luce, head of the Washington state Department of Licensing, said her department has received a lot of inquiries from other states.
“The Department of Homeland Security is encouraging other states to look at our pilot program,” she said.
No one denies that there are security concerns along the Canadian and Mexican borders. Since 2005, Chertoff said, Customs and Border Protection officers have detained more than 60,000 individuals trying to cross the border with phony documents and fraudulent claims of U.S. citizenship. More than 8,000 different documents can be used to gain entry into the United States, but most people were admitted after simply telling border agents they were U.S. citizens.
All that is about to change. Though none of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks crossed a land border into the United States, others have tried, including Ahmed Ressam, the millennium bomber who was captured by an alert border agent in Port Angeles, Wash. The 9/11 commission said travel documents were as important to terrorists as weapons and called for tighter border regulations.
In 2004, Congress approved legislation requiring all those entering the United States by land, air or sea from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean to have a valid passport or other secure ID. The rule applies to U.S. citizens.
Air travel rules took effect this January. Land and sea rules were slated to take effect January 2008.
But the administration, particularly the State Department, was unprepared for the crush of passport applications. The wait for a passport is now roughly 12 weeks, compared with only six weeks previously. State Department officials admitted they weren’t prepared.
With the State Department struggling to catch up, the Department of Homeland Security waived the passport requirement until Sept. 30 for those arriving in the United States by air. All U.S. citizens have to show is that they’ve applied for a passport.
The Department of Homeland Security has also made adjustments in the January 2008 deadline for those arriving by land and sea. Under the latest rules, those arriving by land and sea starting January 2008 need to either show a passport or a government-issued ID like a driver’s license, along with proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate.
Starting in June 2008, those arriving by land and sea will be required to show a passport or a document compliant with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, such as an enhanced Washington state driver’s license.
“This is an unmitigated disaster,” Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. said of the Homeland Security Department’s shifting requirements and deadlines.
Dicks, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the administration has little credibility when it comes to this issue.
“What makes me mad is they insist on doing this, but time and again they have been unable to deliver,” he said.
The House, as part of its Homeland Security appropriations bill, overwhelmingly voted to delay until June 2009 implementation of the new security rules for those arriving by land and sea. Similar legislation is working its way through the Senate.
Chertoff said delaying those rules by a year would be a mistake, adding that those who suggest it are “playing with fire. They are gambling with the security of this country.”
But members of Congress remain highly critical.
“They are trying to shove a round peg into a square hole,” said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., whose district includes Point Roberts and other border communities in northwestern Washington state.
The enhanced driver’s license Washington State will begin issuing in January will require a proof of citizenship, identity and residency and will cost $40, compared with the $97 cost of a passport.
The new licenses will have a special icon on the front that indicates the holder is a U.S. citizen, text on the back that can be scanned by border agents and a radio frequency identification chip required by the federal government to “facilitate rapid identification checks at border crossings.”