Friday, April 15, 2005

President Bush said yesterday that he was surprised by the announcement this month by the Department of Homeland Security that it would require passports for tourists crossing the border from Canada and Mexico, and pledged to work around it.

“When I first read that in the newspaper, about the need to have passports, I said, ‘What’s going on here?’” Mr. Bush told the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “I thought there was a better way to expedite legal flow of traffic and people.

“Evidently this has been mandated in law,” Mr. Bush said. “So I’ve talked to [Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] and Homeland Security people about seeing if there’s some flexibility in the law.”

Requiring passports “is going to disrupt honest flow of traffic,” Mr. Bush said, adding that he has the executive branch “checking out right now” how the law could be interpreted more loosely.

The Department of Homeland Security has proposed requiring passports or other approved secure documents from anyone — including Americans — entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean and Panama. About 20 percent of Americans own passports.

The rules were scheduled to become final this fall after a public comment period and to be phased in by 2008.

Americans currently show a driver’s license or other government-issued photo identification to cross the border from Canada. The rules change has been opposed by Canada, the largest trading partner of the United States, who threatened reciprocal requirements.

Conservatives in Congress say Mr. Bush has been lax about enforcing immigration law. Mr. Bush has proposed a “guest-worker program” that would grant legal status to millions of Mexican immigrants currently breaking the law.

Mr. Bush said yesterday that he understands the problem of illegal immigration, especially on the Arizona border, where a volunteer group called the Minuteman Project is helping the understaffed Border Patrol catch illegal immigrants.

“On the larger scale, look, we got a lot to do to enforce the border,” Mr. Bush said. “For those of you in Arizona now know that Arizona has got more illegal immigrants coming across their border than, I guess, any other state right now.”

“My view is Congress needs to work with us to pass immigration reform,” he said. “One, we got to enforce the border better. We’ve increased border spending by 34 percent since, I think, 2001.

“But it doesn’t make any sense to me to have a system that kind of forces an industry to develop, an industry that smuggles people, an industry that forges documents, an industry that really doesn’t represent the best of America,” he said.

Mr. Bush again promoted his guest-worker program as a way to battle illegal immigration.

“To me, it’s a more humane way than a system which encourages employers who are looking for workers to break the law, to unknowingly accept illegal documentation, for example,” he said. “This is a tough issue. Look, I understand. The danger with the immigration issue is that it can lead to nativism and encourage behavior which is really not how Americans should view the world.”

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