Border-crossing advocates call for a PASS

Representatives from the Homeland Security and State departments defended their plans yesterday to issue People Access Security Services (PASS) cards to facilitate crossings at Canadian and Mexican borders. However, lawmakers and business leaders offered alternatives to the passport replacements, which they said are too costly and time consuming.

“Crossing the Canadian border in upstate New York isn’t like crossing the Atlantic Ocean — it’s more like crossing the Hudson River,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “To set up an elaborate procedure that would impede that kind of crossing would be a deathblow to our economy.” Testifying alongside Schumer were Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Reps. Thomas Reynolds (R-N.Y.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) also submitted testimony.

Schumer cited the western New York-based Buffalo Bills football team, a small market franchise that has struggled to stay in its hometown. About 15,000 Canadians cross the border to see Bills games. Without those fans, he said, the city could lose its team and the associated revenue. Schumer said that if additional costs and waiting periods were implemented to cross the border, they would stifle the flow of tourism.

Lack of communication about the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is also hurting present border crossing numbers, he said. “The federal government is not doing a good job letting the public know that things haven’t been changed,” Schumer said.

He said he would send a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff asking that they prepare a public awareness campaign and direct border agents to explain that no changes have been made to the current border-crossing system. He said Plattsburgh, N.Y., saw border traffic decline significantly after the WHTI was passed because people thought the new rules were effective immediately.

State and DHS officials said the PASS card system would enhance border security and standardize identity, citing concerns about the massive variety of identity documentation and variations of fake documents. “Having a smaller set of documents…would ultimately streamline entry process and facilitate traffic,” said Paul Rosenzweig, DHS’ counselor to the assistant secretary of the Policy Directorate and acting assistant secretary for policy development. The Canadian government has yet to institute any plans to adopt a PASS card system.

Panel members at the hearing offered several alternatives to PASS cards. Representatives from the Business, Economic Security, Trade and Tourism Coalition called for a merging of the WHTI and the controversial Real ID Act, which requires driver’s licenses to conform to minimum security requirements. They argue that Real ID cards are more secure.

“The congressionally mandated security features in the Real-ID Driver's Licenses themselves is much higher than the level of security features in the proposed-PASS card,” said Ken Oplinger, president and chief executive officer of Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of the coalition.

Dorgan suggested charging $20 for PASS cards and offering free passes to citizens under the age of 18 to expedite the border-crossing process. Slaughter asked for an expansion of the NEXUS and Free And Secure Trade (FAST) programs, which both allow dedicated lanes and faster processing for frequent travelers and pre-approved business carriers.

Rosenzweig said NEXUS and FAST were viable only for low-traffic border areas, and that PASS cards cost as much as half the $97 price of current passports, although the final price of the technology is not known.

“Whatever the solution, it must be a secure and affordable alternative to passports,” Schumer said.

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