- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

President Bush said yesterday that he was open to extending a Jan. 1, 2008, deadline requiring those crossing the Canadian border to have identification documents such as passports, but noted that a congressional law has tied his hands and that the federal government is proceeding under the current plan.

“I think that if Congress decides there needs to be flexibility, there will be flexibility,” Mr. Bush said during an East Room press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Although the Senate has voiced support for extending the deadline by 18 months, the House has not taken up the issue. “So we are operating in the executive branch under the idea that nothing will change, and therefore, we need to get to the Canadian government as quickly as possible our definition of what a reasonable policy is,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Harper, a conservative who took office in February, voiced concern that the law — known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) — could impede the free movement of people and goods.

“The president and I agreed that the implementation of the provisions of the WHTI must not unduly hinder cross-border travel or tourism or trade. And to that end, we’ve tasked our officials to agree on common standards for securing alternate documents, and preferably, as soon as possible,” Mr. Harper said.

U.S. lawmakers were concerned about liberal immigration laws in Canada, which some said posed a threat to the United States. The northern neighbor also has unusual laws covering asylum seekers, which allow them to stay in the country before their scheduled immigration hearing. Canada has the highest per capita immigration admissions of any major nation and took in more than 250,000 immigrants last year, as well as 35,000 the nation deemed “refugees.”

Mr. Bush made clear that he understands the new requirement could pose an undue hardship on Canadians.

“I fully understand the need for there to be simplicity in the documentation,” he said. “So I’m familiar with this issue a lot, and I really do emphasize the need for us to be mindful of what a onerous program could mean to good relations, as well as facilitation of trade.”

During a 45-minute Oval Office meeting yesterday, Mr. Harper cited one example: impeding Little League teams from playing baseball in Manitoba. But Mr. Bush said that although his hands are tied by Congress, he plans to work with Canadian leaders to establish a workable system.

“If the Congress provides flexibility, of course, we will work with the Canadian government to extend deadlines. If the Congress says ‘no,’ this is what our intent is: We will work with the Canadian government to make the law work,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Harper said his government remains in the dark about the new border requirements.

“We need more information, and we’ve been pressing for that for some time, and we’ll continue to do so,” he said.

The prime minister also warned that making the border too restrictive could be an over-reaction to terror threats.

“I would hate to see a law go into place that has the effect of not just limiting and endangering trade or tourism, but endangering all those thousands of social interactions that occur across our border every day. … And I would just urge the Congress to think carefully, that if the fight for security ends up meaning that the United States becomes more closed to its friends, then the terrorists have won,” he said.

In an unusual move, Mr. Bush will hold a press conference in Chicago today as part of an effort to listen to people in different parts of the country, a White House official said yesterday. The president flew to Chicago last night to dine with Mayor Richard Daley — another intriguing move because yesterday was the president’s 60th birthday and the mayor is an outspoken Democrat.

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