Heading across the border gets more complicatedby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
A big change takes effect on the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. For years, crossing the borders often required only a driver's license and an oral declaration of citizenship. But now, travelers have to prove their citizenship, either with a passport, a birth certificate or some other document. The changes are designed to improve security, but people in northern border towns like International Falls worry the change will hurt tourism and trade.
International Falls, Minn. — The Outdoorsman Headquarters sporting goods shop in International Falls is nearly a stone's throw from the Canadian border. Thousands of people from across the country stop here each year -- mostly in the summer -- to pick up gear and bait on their way to fishing trips into Canada.
Owner Jim Lenium worries the new border crossing rules will hurt his business.
He doesn't think travelers have had enough time to get used to the idea of carrying passports or birth certificates. He thinks some won't want to bother with the hassle.
Lenium says he surveyed his customers last summer and found that nearly half didn't have a passport.
"It still tells me that there are going to be people that won't have them and it's going to be a concern," said Lenium. "They're going to get to the border, they're not going to have it. It's going to cause problems and definitely if they don't have it it's going to hurt business, there's no question about it."
The new border rules take effect in stages. Now, you have to prove your citizenship, but you have several options other than a passport. By June 2009, passports or some other secure document will be required.
The changes are part of a post-nine-eleven law called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
The law already requires passports for people entering the U.S. by air.
When that part of the border rules took effect last year, it was quickly followed by a massive backlog in passport applications. The backlog prompted several delays in implementing the rules at land and sea crossings.
Some fear the passport backlog could happen again.
International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce President Betsy Jensen says she also worries the new rules will create longer lines at the border.
She says already in the summer, people may wait in line for several hours. Jensen says the new rules may slow commerce even more between International Falls and its cross-border neighbor, Fort Frances, Ontario.
"Our biggest concern right now is that we're able to conduct business back and forth without delays, without problems and without issues," said Jensen. "If we have choke points there at the border, then it might stop a person from coming back the next time."
Jensen says confusion about what's needed to cross the border has already hurt retail businesses on both sides. But she thinks more people are taking the plunge and getting passports.
In Koochiching County, the number of passport applicants has more than doubled over the past year.
"I do believe that the panic is kind of over," she said. "There was that general shock and then I think it's that whole learning curve where, you know, you just have to learn to accept it, because it is what it is, and it's not going to go away."
Still, some are angry about the new border rules.
Woody Woods owns a resort on Rainy Lake and runs Woody's Fairly Reliable Guide Service for anglers. He says he expects his business will suffer as restrictions tighten.
Woods says he has lots of friends across the border, but he doesn't visit Canada as often because of the hassle. He says the rules stifle relations between International Falls and Fort Frances.
"There's a lot of cross-marriages and relatives live on both sides, and all of the sudden it's kind of like, in a way they're putting up like North Korea and South Korea or something like that," said Woods. "It just doesn't make sense."
Data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency shows the number of people entering the U.S. at International Falls fell sharply last year.
In 2006, more than 1.2 million vehicle passengers and pedestrians crossed into the U.S. Last year, that number dropped by more than 339,000 to around 897,000.
There's no way of knowing why fewer people crossed the border last year. Some local residents suspect the decline was due, in part, to an uncertainty among travelers over what documents are needed to cross. Travel frequency was also likely impacted by high gas prices and other economic factors.
Homeland Security officials predict the latest border crossing rule changes may initially cause longer lines at the border, because agents will need more time to examine birth certificates and other citizenship documents.
Linda Loveless, the International Falls port director, hopes that as more people get passports, things will improve.
"As more people get that information, as more people get the standardized machine readable documents, we think that that will actually facilitate traffic and move it more quickly across the border," said Loveless.
There is some good news for border residents. Beginning in February, the U.S. State Department will begin taking applications for something called a passcard. It's smaller than a passport and costs $45, about half the price.
For frequent border crossers willing to go through a special background check, there will soon be another option -- a high-tech, trusted traveler card that will allow them to cross the border without even stopping.
- Morning Edition, 01/31/2008, 7:20 a.m.