Evolving passport rules cause confusion on northern borderby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
If you want to drive across the border into Canada and back, it typically takes just a driver's license to satisfy border agents. But the federal government plans to tighten the rules. Right now, it's unclear if those new rules will rven require passports, or when the new rules witll take effect. That's causing confusion in border towns like International Falls, where travel into Canada is routine.
International Falls, Minn. — Some rules for crossing into Canada and back have already changed. As of January, all people traveling by air need passports. But the requirements for land and sea border crossings aren't so clear.
Those changes were supposed to take effect at the end of this year, but Congress pushed back the deadline. Now, passport requirements could happen next January, or maybe as late as June 2009.
The uncertainty is frustrating for people in International Falls. Several million people cross the border there each year, many of them locals who work or shop in Fort Frances, Ontario.
The number of people applying for passports in International Falls jumped by more than 25 percent last year, according to Koochiching County Recorder Pam Rooney.
"Oh yeah, it's been quite busy, which is unusual," said Rooney. "We used to have one every day or two, and now we're getting up to 10 in a day."
Rooney says she expected an increase because of the new air travel requirements. But many locals were getting passports for themselves and their children, just because they thought they might eventually need them.
Now a big change in proposed border crossing rules means kids won't need passports. In a policy reversal, the Department of Homeland Security announced just last month that U.S. and Canadian children 15 or younger will be allowed to cross with certified birth certificates. Kids up to age 18 won't need passports either, if they're traveling with school, religious or athletic groups under adult supervision.
Pete Schultz, director of the local convention and visitors bureau in International Falls, says some people aren't sure what to do.
"There are a certain amount of folks in the area that are applying for the passports, saying that it's going to be inevitable and they want to get ahead of the curve," Schultz said. "And there are others that say, 'Well wait, because they've got to simplify the system.'"
Schultz says business and resort owners are worried the confusion over passports is affecting the local tourist industry. He says the International Falls Chamber of Commerce gets calls all the time from potential visitors from the U.S. and Canada who aren't sure what they need to cross the border.
"There's confusion among people who don't know if a passport is needed for land travel now," said Schultz. "And the confusion will probably continue, at least until there is some uniform rule."
Schultz says what people in International Falls really want is a cheaper alternative to passports.
That's what U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman wants, too. Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, has offered an amendment to 9-11 Commission legislation.
Coleman's proposal would create pilot programs to test technically enhanced drivers licenses. People who chose that kind of license could use it as secure proof of citizenship at less than half the cost of passports.
Sen. Coleman says with travel document plans so fluid, he understands why people are confused.
"There is lack of clarity," Coleman said. "The message has not been adequately communicated. I think there's a level of fear out there and I think it's having a negative economic impact. I want to ensure that we have safe travel, that's my goal. At the same time I want to have safe travel in a way that doesn't upend the economies on our northern border."
Coleman says the states of Washington and Michigan want to participate in enhanced drivers license pilot projects. He says it's unclear if Minnesota would be involved. The U.S. Senate may consider the idea this week.
- Morning Edition, 03/06/2007, 7:25 a.m.