WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is facing a rebellion by northern border-state lawmakers who want to push back deadlines requiring passports or tamperproof ID cards from all who enter the United States.
In a bow to lawmakers whose states neighbor Canada, the Homeland Security Department is considering easing some of the rules for infrequent border crossers. But many in Congress, backed by Canadians, say the compromise isn't enough, and are pushing to delay the restrictions, set to take effect in 2008, by 18 months.
The rules, as they stand now, are "a train wreck on the horizon," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. He and Rep. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, are looking to file legislation that would delay border requirements until July 2009. That legislation could come as early as this week as part of a massive spending bill the Senate is considering, Leahy spokesman David Carle said Wednesday. Stevens is chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
The administration may initially address part of what some in Washington call the "Aunt Tilly" problem — occasional visitors to Canadian border communities who might be prevented from returning to the U.S. because they didn't know to bring acceptable ID. The law applies to U.S. citizens and foreign visitors alike.
"We are working on that, we're concerned about that, and the last thing we want to do is discourage traffic," Jim Williams, director of a Homeland Security Department program that monitors international travel to the U.S., said in an interview. "We've got to come up with solutions that meet people's needs."
Specific plans are still being worked out. Williams said the administration was looking at issuing short-term passes, or one-day passes, for legitimate border travelers who have neither a passport nor the proposed "PASS" card that is being developed.
To people who repeatedly try to cross the border without the right ID, however, "we might say, 'Look, we won't let you back in if you continue to do this and not get a passport or card,"' Williams said. "We don't want to discourage that person's travel, but, on the other hand, we want to move people to where we can identify them."
The ID rules were part of a 2004 intelligence overhaul law, overwhelmingly approved by Congress, to tighten U.S. borders against terrorists. They have since pitted lawmakers from border states against those from the heartland, strained relations with Canada, and forced Homeland Security to roll out technology and training under a deadline that may prove too aggressive to meet.
"Obviously I raised concerns, some of the same questions that you raised, in terms of, is it feasible?" Day told reporters in Washington. "Those are concerns of interest, those are concerns neighbors raise because they might be concerned about what their neighbor is doing."
The rules are not as controversial on the nation's southern border, where more than 8 million Mexicans carry laser visas that let them easily travel between the two countries. Those who enter the U.S. from Canada now need only common forms of identification, such as a driver's license and a birth certificate.
Critics fear the rules will dramatically reduce travel and tourism across the northern border, damaging local economies, as visitors shy away from the $97 cost of a passport. The PASS cards are expected to cost half that much, and perhaps far less, said Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty.
"We all recognize the security issues. But there's practical and economic impacts that me and my colleagues all have been hit with, and we're sensitive to," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
Homeland Security "needs to tell us exactly how this is going to work, exactly what the costs are going to be," said Coleman, who voted for the 2004 law mandating the border crackdown. "We don't think we're at that stage." Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Homeland Security "is listening and is beginning to understand our problem, but we're not going to rest until there's a solution that solves it."
Congress this week is holding hearings on the program — dubbed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.