- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Americans returning to the United States by air from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda without a passport won’t be denied re-entry — at least for another few weeks.

The first phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative took effect yesterday. The new law requires airline passengers traveling between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda to present a valid passport when entering the United States.

But U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said yesterday the agency will continue to allow Americans to re-enter the country by showing government-issued photo IDs, such as a driver’s license, or a birth certificate during a grace period for the next month or so.

“Ongoing, we get people who present themselves with an ID that may not be appropriate, and we’re used to dealing with people like that,” CBP spokesman Eric Blum said. “We do some checks, ask some questions, and if we’re able to, we let them through. And that will continue” for a few weeks.

Canadian “snowbirds” — Canadians spending the winter in the United States — are exempt from the new passport requirements for the time being, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last week.

That’s not to say travelers necessarily will be able to breeze through customs without a passport, as they may be required to go through a “secondary screening” process.

“In most cases, the issue is resolved, but it just takes longer,” Mr. Blum said. “The policy is, we’ll do whatever it takes to verify identification. … You’re not going to get stranded” without a passport.

Until yesterday, American travelers were allowed to make verbal declaration of citizenship or show a driver’s license or one of many other documents when crossing the border by air, making authentication of identity both difficult and time-consuming, the customs agency says.

The new rules were recommended by the September 11 commission and were passed into law as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The rules are aimed at reducing the threat of terrorism and creating a uniform system to identify travelers.

Travel-industry officials had predicted bottlenecks at airport customs stations this week. But wait times at airport customs stations nationwide were no longer than last week, Mr. Blum said.

“That’s because on most planes arriving [from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean] we’re seeing 100 percent compliance” of the new passport regulations.

Customs lines at Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports also were no longer than usual yesterday, said spokeswoman Tara Hamilton.

Tom Cross, a Canadian who traveled to Baltimore from Toronto on business yesterday, said clearing customs went “pretty much normal” after arriving at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport (BWI).

Angel Tucker of Prattville, Ala., who frequently travels to Toronto on business, said she has always carried a passport when flying to Canada.

“It’s just easier to do that versus carrying a birth certificate, and [passports] hold up better anyway,” said Mrs. Tucker while waiting at BWI for an Air Canada flight to Toronto last night. “So I didn’t even realize today was the first day” for the new passport regulations.”

But while requiring adults to carry passports to Canada and other countries is a “good idea,” she thinks children should be exempt.

“I think that’s a little bit restrictive,” she said. “Certainly for adults [passports] help curb terrorism, but we had to get a passport for our 2-year-old. … It’s so frustrating.”

For now, the rules affect only air travelers. Land and sea travelers will not have to show passports until at least January 2008.

Customs officials expect a more difficult time getting the word out for next year’s restrictions because, unlike airline passengers, most land and sea passengers who cross the Canadian and Mexican borders do not carry passports.

“We’ve got a lot of preparing to do,” Mr. Blum said.

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