May 24, 2009
New Requirements on Border ID Stir Worries at Crossings
New York Times
By GINGER THOMPSON
WASHINGTON — After years of delay and hundreds of millions of dollars in preparations, Customs and Border Protection officials said new security measures would go into effect on June 1, requiring Americans entering the country by land or sea to show government-approved identification.
Currently, Americans crossing borders or arriving on cruise ships can prove their nationality by showing thousands of other forms of identification. But after the start of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, Americans will be required to present a passport or one of five other secure identification cards.
Coming as the summer vacation season starts, the measure is expected to lengthen lines at least temporarily at border crossings and seaports. But the biggest impact is expected along the nearly 4,000-mile border that the United States shares with Canada, which both countries once boasted was the world’s longest undefended frontier.
Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans and Canadians crossing that border were required to do little more than state their nationality. Security has been gradually increased since then, causing longer lines and a steady drop in casual cross-border excursions, according to business and travel associations that monitor border traffic.
Now some local and state officials are concerned that the new measures might further disrupt a major trading relationship for the United States and drive apart border communities that have deep economic and cultural ties.
“We treat Canada like going to Ohio or to Chicago for the weekend,” said Sarah Hubbard of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We have families living on both sides of the border. We have business partnerships on both sides of the border.
“We believe our community is unique because it is bi-national,” Ms. Hubbard added. “It’s seamless in many ways.”
Nearly 20 percent of all land trade between the United States and Canada — valued at an estimated $130 billion — crosses the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Ms. Hubbard said some 461,000 trucks, buses and cars crossed the Ambassador Bridge each month.
She said an estimated 4,000 Canadian health care workers commuted into Detroit to work. And the manufacturing industry is so transnational, she said, that a single car can be sent back and forth across the border 12 times before the finished product is ready to be shipped to a dealer.
Still, she said, cross-border traffic has fallen since Sept. 11. Traffic across the Ambassador Bridge is down by nearly 100,000 crossings a month this year compared with last year, Ms. Hubbard said. Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York, said that at border crossings in her state, traffic was down 13 percent to 19 percent this year from what it was last year.
Ms. Hubbard said some of the decline had been caused by the recession. But some of it she attributed to “confusion about documents and hostile treatment by border officials.”
“We have many people who come from Canada and tell us they don’t feel welcome when they cross the border,” she said. “We talk about those complaints with our friends on the border, and they tell us their job is security, not customer service.”
Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary who forged her political career on the southern border and plans to travel to the northern border next week, makes no apologies for the tightened security measures, including using unmanned Predator aircraft from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota to patrol the border with Canada.
Ground sensors were added along the border in Vermont, and towers equipped with cameras and sensors are being built around Buffalo.
“One of the things that I think we need to be sensitive to is the very real feeling among southern border states, and in Mexico, that if things are being done on the Mexican border, they should also be done on the Canadian border,” Ms. Napolitano said at a recent conference on the northern border at the Brookings Institution.
Her comparisons between the northern and southern borders have stirred outrage in Canada, where 80 percent of the population lives within 100 miles of the border and the government considers itself one of America’s most reliable allies.
Seizures of illegal drugs and the detention of immigrants along the northern border are a small fraction of what they are along the southern one, which is considered the busiest transshipment point for illegal immigrants and drugs in the world.
Still, Canadian officials said that their government, like the United States, had become much more sensitive to terrorism threats since Sept. 11. Canada has invested heavily, they said, in improving immigration controls, upgrading security at airports and seaports, sharing intelligence with its allies, and establishing its own homeland security agency, which includes joint American-Canadian border enforcement teams. And Canadian border guards began getting their first weapons in 2007, after years of debate about whether they should be armed.
A Canadian diplomat in Washington said his country’s biggest diplomatic problem had been dealing with the American perception that Canada poses a threat because of its open immigration policy and concerns that it is a haven for terrorists. “We spend a lot of time trying to explain the fact that just because you don’t have the National Guard or a fence along the border, it doesn’t mean it’s not secure,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of his comments.
Plans to put the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative into effect two years ago were postponed because of a significant backlog in passport applications and delays getting sufficient staff and equipment in place.
In a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, Jayson P. Ahern, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said Congress had allotted $350 million to help the agency resolve those problems.
Mr. Ahern said recent surveys of drivers across the border suggested that more than 80 percent of them had the required identification. The State Department, he said, has issued a million passport cards, wallet-size identification. And at least two million other people have gotten one of the four other kinds of acceptable border crossing cards.
“I don’t expect any major delays or traffic jams as a result of this program,” Mr. Ahern said. “There will be no story on June 1.”