by Dennis Wagner – May. 23, 2009 12:00 AM
If you plan to return from Mexico on or after June 1, take your passport or expect delays at the international line while federal agents try to verify your citizenship.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and State Department are about to implement a border-protection plan that has been five years in the offing.
Next month, port inspectors no longer will recognize birth certificates as proof of citizenship for land travelers returning from Mexico and Canada. Instead, U.S. citizens will be expected to carry a passport, passport card, enhanced driver’s license or other government-approved documents. If you forget, however – or if a dog eats the passport while you’re in Rocky Point – don’t panic: Customs and Border Protection agents promise to detain travelers only long enough to verify citizenship by using government databases and other tools.
“We will be practical and flexible in implementing this new travel requirement,” Jayson P. Ahern, acting CBP commissioner, said in a news release. “But we encourage travelers to get these documents now to expedite border crossings from Day 1.”
If you haven’t yet applied for a passport, though, you may want to delay any trips in early June, because it could take weeks to get one.
Joanne Ferreira, a national spokeswoman for the agency, said the verification process will vary depending on circumstances, so it is impossible to say how many people may be delayed or for how long. She said those without proper paperwork will be given “non-compliance notices,” a written warning without consequences, before they are allowed into the country.
“People may be delayed,” she said, “but we’re not going to deny entry to U.S. citizens.”
Enactment in stages
The new protocol is part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a national-security plan established under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The passport requirement, mandated for all travel within the Western Hemisphere, was intended to make the borders more secure.
Enactment of the law has occurred in stages, with numerous delays because of concerns the rules might interfere with tourism and commerce. The passport requirement, for example, was originally scheduled to take effect in 2006 and then in 2007. Both start-up dates were postponed by Congress under pressure from trade and travel-industry interests.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared last week that there will not be another delay.
Although federal authorities are promising soft enforcement, the requirement is a major concern to travel agents and Mexican resorts already maimed this year by recession, drug violence and swine flu.
“It’s just added to the impact of everything else,” said Daniel Chavarin, reservations manager for Oceano Rentals, which handles bookings in Rocky Point. “Many people waited until the last minute (to get a passport).”
Chavarin said beachfront rentals usually are filled over Memorial Day, but half the casitas are empty this weekend despite major discounts.
Hope Wallace, owner of ADA Travel in Casa Grande and vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents, said Mexico trips represented about 40 percent of her business earlier this year but have dropped to less than 10 percent.
“As soon as the word ‘Mexico’ comes out of a client’s mouth, the first thing we ask is, ‘Do you have a passport?’ ” Wallace said. “Some people have figured it out, but some are totally clueless.”
One example: An annual tour in Cuernavaca usually draws 50 people who head south to learn about Mexico’s culture, history and language. This year, Wallace said, only five signed up, adding, “That’s the kind of carnage we’re looking at.”
One of Wallace’s customers, 59-year-old Diane Daniels of Coolidge, paid in advance for a family cruise this month from Long Beach, Calif., to Baja California. When the swine flu hit, Daniels said, the cruise line canceled stops in Mexico until June 15.
Daniels said she could have delayed the trip, but that would have required buying passports for a family already on a tight vacation budget. So, the family has settled for a four-day ship ride around Catalina Island, 22 miles from Long Beach’s docks.
“It kind of put a damper on our whole cruise,” Daniels said.
“We were really looking forward to going to Mexico. We were not pleased, but there was nothing we could do.”
Effect on tourism
For years, Americans who visited Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean were exempt from showing identity papers at U.S. borders and seaports.
In January 2007, Customs and Border Protection began requiring passports for air arrivals from those nations.
A year later, the agency ended a practice of accepting oral declarations of citizenship at seaports and land-border crossings, but it allowed birth certificates and some other documents.
Federal agencies then carried out a saturation media campaign, handing out 6 million fliers to warn travelers that they will need more secure documents next month.
Still, there are concerns.
Mel Fabregas, owner of Rocky Point Travel, said the new protocol is going to hurt restaurants, pharmacies and other Mexican businesses that rely on Arizona snowbirds.
“A high percentage of the (U.S.) population does not have a passport, and with the economy the way it is, this is just one more expense,” Fabregas said. “Eventually, it’ll work out. But in the short term, it’s going to affect tourism.”
Ferreira, the CBP spokeswoman, said that on June 1, all agency managers and officers will be manning checkpoints, where signs warn travelers of the new requirement. “(But officials) don’t anticipate any big problems,” she said. “We have done this before. And we’re ready.”
According to the State Department, 92 million Americans – 30 percent of the nation’s citizens – hold passports today, up from 60 million five years ago. In Arizona, 22 percent of residents own passports.
The State Department estimates a four- to eight-week wait for passports after an application is filed. Processing can be reduced to two weeks for an additional fee.
What you will need:
Beginning June 1, a birth certificate will no longer suffice as proof of citizenship for American travelers age 16 or older who re-enter the country by land or sea from Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requires a passport or equivalent papers.
The list of acceptable documents for land and sea travelers includes:
Passport: The standard citizenship proof for travelers, recognized worldwide.
Passport card: A less expensive and more convenient alternative that requires the same background information as a passport. The card is accepted at land and sea ports for travelers from Canada and Mexico but is not allowed for air passengers.
Trusted traveler cards: SENTRI cards allow expedited passage through border crossings from Mexico for pre-approved applicants who have undergone extensive background checks. Commercial truckers may obtain FAST cards for the same purpose.
Enhanced driver’s licenses: A handful of states – Michigan, New York, Vermont and Washington – issue special motorist licenses that include citizenship verification.
Military ID: Valid for service members with accompanying travel orders.
Special groups: Children younger than 16 may use birth certificates as proof of citizenship when entering the U.S. at land and sea ports from contiguous territories. Alternate identification papers also may be valid for student groups, Native Americans and “closed loop” cruise-ship passengers.
Obtaining a passport
Applications for passports and passport cards are available at U.S. post offices and online at www.travel.state. gov.
First-time passports cost $100 for applicants 16 or older, $85 for children. They are acceptable for travel worldwide by air, land or sea. Processing takes one to two months. Expedited passports are available for an additional fee.
Wallet-sized passport cards cost $45 for those older than 15 and $35 for those younger. They are not valid for international air travel but may be used at U.S. land and sea ports.
Sources: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. State Department
Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative
U.S. citizens must present a passport or other secure document to enter the country from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. Fliers already must present the documentation; starting June 1, people entering by land or sea must comply. The requirement is a result of recommendations by the 9/11 Commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Dec. 8, 2004: Congress passes into law the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which requires among other things that secure documents be presented to enter the United States.
2006: Under pressure from lobbyists, private industry and governments, Congress delays the passport requirement for land or sea travelers entering the United States from Mexico or Canada.
Jan. 23, 2007: Beginning of requirement that travelers entering the U.S. by plane present a passport or other secure form of identification, such as a Real ID.
December 2007: Congress delays a requirement that beginning Jan. 31, 2008, all travelers entering the U.S. by land or sea present a passport or other secure form of ID.
Jan. 31, 2008: Beginning of requirement that travelers entering the U.S. by car or boat present proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate and driver’s license.
June 1: Travelers entering the U.S. by land or sea must present a passport or other secure form of ID.
Sources: Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Republic research
Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary of State, said earlier this year that the government is prepared to handle as many as 30 million applications if the deadline creates a run on travel papers.