Border passport rule kicks in Monday


It’s always been a bit of a misnomer – the “world’s longest undefended border” is actually pretty well defended.

But what was true before will be even more so come Monday, when the modern-day imperatives of homeland security will require Canadians and Americans alike to carry a passport in order to cross the 9,000-kilometre frontier and enter the United States.

The long-awaited and oft-delayed measure has prompted a great deal of hand-wringing in both countries, mostly by federal and provincial officials in Canada and in the border states who fear the lingering effects of a deep economic chill.

That, too, will prove to be a misnomer, predicted Chris Sands, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and a long-time observer of cross-border interactions.

“The chaos is a bit overblown,” Sands said. “Yes, it’s a new requirement, but it’s a requirement that has some practical value … better identification was inevitable.”

After four years of false starts and some minor concessions to opponents, the Bush-era Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative officially kicks in Monday, affecting travellers over the age of 16 in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda, and Americans returning from abroad.

All of those travellers will now be required to have a passport or some other form of enhanced, U.S.-approved documentation.

The day dawns despite years of opposition to WHTI in Canada and in border states because of fears that the lucrative cross-border tourism industry, not to mention millions of dollars worth of daily trade, would be seriously eroded.

Most Americans don’t hold passports – an estimated 70 per cent of them, according to U.S. State Department figures for 2008. That’s raised concerns that those Americans won’t bother visiting Canada, or entertain doing business north of the border, if they’re now required to dole out the cash and endure the bureaucratic hassle of getting one.

But the two-year delay in implementing the measure has been beneficial for both countries, said Sands, since it gave them the chance to get the word out to those cities and towns where their economic lifeblood flows across the border on a daily basis.

“I think we’ll see a slightly bumpy, but not too bad, transition,” he said.

“Certainly in places like Detroit and Buffalo, where you have more impulse travel – people saying, `Let’s go over to the casino, let’s go buy lunch,’ or something like that – you’ll see a bigger effect, but for planned vacations and larger trips, the expectation is that there might be some additional hassle, but if you can afford to travel to Canada, you can afford the passport.”

The Canadian government and border-state lawmakers lobbied hard against WHTI in the years after the 9-11 Commission recommended that standardized travel documents be used at all of the nation’s ports of entry.

Even Michael Wilson, the Canadian ambassador to the United States, got involved in the lobbying efforts following the commission’s 2004 report, something that raised eyebrows at the Department of Homeland Security.

Senators Patrick Leahy and Ted Stevens, from Vermont and Alaska respectively, pushed through legislation in 2006 that postponed the implementation.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat, was still vowing to delay it just two months ago, predicting “pure chaos” would ensue if officials stuck to the June 1 implementation date. She was unsuccessful in the end.

Sands, meanwhile, isn’t alone in his optimism.

Jayson P. Ahern, acting commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection, noted that surveys of drivers crossing the border in recent months suggest that more than 80 per cent of them possessed the required identification.

In addition, he said, the State Department has issued a million passport cards – wallet-sized ID that’s cheaper to obtain than regular passport “books,” although not valid for air travel.

At least two million other people, Ahern said, have at least one of the four other kinds of acceptable border crossing cards, including Nexus Canada-U.S. border-crossing cards or state enhanced drivers’ licences.

“I don’t expect any major delays or traffic jams as a result of this program,” Ahern said.

“There will be no story on June 1.”

One advocate for passport reform north of the border, however, said Canadians have been poorly served by Passport Canada as Monday looms.

Bill McMullin noted that Passport Canada abruptly ended its online application service as of April 30, just as other federal departments have been expanding their Web-based links with Canadians.

“Passport Canada has not done a very good job preparing for the onslaught of applications,” McMullin said.

“For example, there’s absolutely no reason why more of the process, or the entire process, of applying for a passport or renewing one, can’t be done online.”

The agency said it dropped its online application service because it wasn’t as convenient for Canadians as using downloadable forms that must be filled out and brought in person to a passport office.

It was later revealed, by way of a Freedom of Information request by The Canadian Press, that Passport Canada took the service offline because of security concerns.

But McMullin said the security problems were “amateur mistakes” easily remedied.

“We’re talking Security 101 failures,” said McMullin, the founder of ServicePoint, a company in Bedford, N.S., that specializes in workflow automation applications.

“Rather than fix the problem, they took it down. They haven’t done enough communication, they haven’t really streamlined the application process, and in fact, they went backwards on the online front. I don’t think very many Canadians are too impressed, especially right now.”