WASHINGTON (AP) – Nineteen senators, including five from Washington state, Idaho and Alaska, asked the Department of Homeland Security on Monday to delay new border-crossing rules that will mean longer lines and stiffer demands for identification for people entering the United States from Canada.
In a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, the senators said commerce will be stifled and lives disrupted if federal officials go ahead Thursday with plans to end the practice of allowing people to enter after showing a document, such as a driver’s license, and declaring their nationality.
But federal officials say the “honor system” must end now.
“I understand the need for greater scrutiny of those coming over our northern border,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “But this new requirement will only make a bad situation worse. Creating this policy now — without any uniform proof of citizenship, without a major public awareness campaign, and without additional support for our overstretched border patrol — will frustrate citizens and won’t provide any new security assurances.”
The plan’s only certainty is that “it will slow traffic and commerce over our northern border,” Murray said.
Idaho Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, and Alaska Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski were among 10 Republicans who signed the letter.
The senators say that implementing the new rules now would violate the spirit of a law passed last month that delays until June 2009 a requirement that people carry passports or similar documents when entering the United States by land or sea. The lawmakers want Chertoff to delay the new identification requirements until the so-called Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is fully implemented.
“If these new requirements go into effect at the end of this month, travel to and from Alaska and other border states will be severely crippled,” said Stevens, who co-sponsored the law delaying the passport requirement until 2009. “I strongly urge Secretary Chertoff to reconsider his decision to move forward with this ill-conceived plan.”
Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said Monday people have known for months the new system was taking effect.
“We remain steadfast in our commitment to rejecting the honor system when deciding who to let into the United States. That’s why we are moving forward with new procedures starting this Thursday, Jan. 31,” Keehner said. “This department cannot ignore the lessons that we learned from Sept. 11, 2001, nor can we faithfully strengthen border security yet leave this vulnerability in status quo.”
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency which will carry out the new policy, said he wasn’t expecting any problems Thursday. No one will be denied entry into the United States if they don’t have the required paperwork, he said.
“The officers are well aware of the documentary requirements,” said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Ted Woo. “This is only an educational period. Wait times are going to be very closely monitored.”
Travelers who don’t have the required identification will be given a flier explaining the new rules. It’s unclear how long the grace period will last.
In states along the vast northern border, residents and business owners fear the new requirements could hinder commerce between the two countries and disrupt a way of life in which people cross with few formalities.
In Maine, the Merchants Association said it supported efforts to delay the pending border requirements.
“These new measures will dramatically slow down the flow of commerce across the border at a time when we need it the most,” the association said in a statement Monday. “With over $1 million of surface transportation trade occurring between the U.S. and Canada every minute, let’s use the time that Congress has provided to find the right solution.”
Others signing the letter were Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Norm Coleman R-Minn.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Pete Domenici, R-N.M.; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; John Sununu, R-N.H.; George Voinovich, R-Ohio; and Chris Dodd, D-Conn.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., did not sign the letter, but a spokeswoman said her office was drafting its own letter that will emphasize the need for much stronger northern border security. Cantwell is concerned that the Bush administration has poorly managed the border initiative, spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton said.
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