WASHINGTON – Plans requiring passports from people entering the United States don't pass muster with President Bush, who has ordered a review of this border security (search) effort amid fears it would impede legal travel from Canada, Mexico and other U.S. neighbors.
The president said Thursday he was surprised by the proposed rules announced last week by the State and Homeland Security departments.
"When I first read that in the newspaper about the need to have passports, particularly today's crossings that take place, about a million for instance in the state of Texas, I said, `What's going on here?"' Bush said when asked about the rules at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
"I thought there was a better way to expedite the legal flow of traffic and people," he said.
Bush, a former Texas governor, said he has ordered a review of the rules. "If people have to have a passport, it's going to disrupt the honest flow of traffic. I think there's some flexibility in the law, and that's what we're checking out right now," the president said.
"On the larger scale, we've got a lot to do to enforce the border," he said.
In December, Bush signed into law an intelligence overhaul (search) that requires tighter border security against terrorists and was the basis for the passport proposal. The White House did not say why the president was unaware of the plans, which his administration announced a week ago.
The proposed guidelines would require passports (search) or a select number of other secure documents from anyone — including Americans — entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean and Panama. The rules were scheduled to become final this fall after a public comment period and to be phased in by 2008.
Currently, Americans generally need to show a driver's license or other government-issued photo identification to cross the border from Canada. Customs officials usually require more proof from Americans returning from the other countries — a driver's license plus a birth certificate to prove citizenship, for example.
An estimated 60 million Americans — about 20 percent of the national population — have passports.
The plans have caused a stir in Canada, where the government announced it might follow suit and impose similar rules against the United States. Canada is the largest U.S. trading partner, with $1.2 billion worth of goods crossing the border daily. Nearly 16 million Canadians entered the United States last year.
Canada's public safety minister, Anne McLellan, told reporters in Ottawa that Bush's comments signal his support for negotiations between the two countries about "accepted forms of ID."
"While we want to keep our borders secure and our respective countries secure, we also want to ensure that we're facilitating trade and the movement of people between the two countries," McLellan said.
A spokesman at the Mexican Embassy had no immediate comment.
As proposed, the rules would allow the use of four other documents, geared to the Mexican and Canadian border, in place of a passport.
People entering the United States from Mexico could continue to use a border crossing card or SENTRI card, which can be obtained following background checks and other security measures. From the Canadian border, a NEXUS card for preapproved low-risk travelers and a FAST card for commercial workers would be accepted.
The plans also leave open the possibility for the use of unnamed "additional documents" that remain under consideration. But the passport "will be the document of choice for entering or re-entering the U.S.," according to a Homeland Security information sheet.
Bush said the rules must be more flexible, and could include electronic fingerprint imaging "to serve as a so-called passport for daily traffic" to help speed up the process.
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that although passports were a requirement of the intelligence overhaul bill, "we are looking at alternative documents that will help us better secure the country, and at the same time facilitate travel."
At the State Department, spokesman Thomas Casey said officials will "look to find ways to implement this program ... in a way that's most efficient and that facilitates travel in the best ways possible."
Bush has proposed immigration liberalization legislation that would establish a guest-worker program. But it has run into difficulty in Congress, particularly among border-state Republicans.
An estimated 10 million immigrants live in the United States illegally; the vast majority are from Mexico, with an additional million arriving every year.