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Border Towns Fret Over New Passport Rules

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's the businesses right along the borders that have been especially wary of a passport requirement, and they have succeeded in delaying that requirement for people coming into the U.S. by car or boat. As long as Canadians don't need a passport to come across the border by land, American businesses want to make sure they know it.

Here's a bit of an ad running on a Toronto area radio station earlier this month.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Woman: Didn't get what you wanted for Christmas? Expose yourself to Fashion Outlets at Niagara Falls, USA, for an incredible boxing with shopping at great prices. Plus, at the fairvale exchange rate, your Canadian dollar has more buying power now than the last 10 years. No passport required for Canadians.

NORRIS: It will be at least another 11 months before passports are required at land crossings and ferry terminals.

NPR's Martin Kaste has been making the trip across the British Columbia/Washington state line.

MARTIN KASTE: The 49th Parallel has traditionally been one of the world's most low key borders, and that's still the case here at the checkpoint between British Columbia and Point Roberts, Washington.

Hi.

Unidentified Man: Hello. Where are you headed now, sir?

KASTE: All it takes me to get across is a driver's license and a sense of humor.

Unidentified Man: First thing about the border, when you pull up, they want to know where you were born.

KASTE: Uh-huh.

Unidentified Man: Where is that?

KASTE: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin.

Unidentified Man: Wisconsin, so a cheesehead.

KASTE: Hey, come on.

This informality may have something to do with the fact that Point Roberts is an accident of geography, a tiny spit of American territory sticking off the western coast of Canada. It's the kind of place where the gas stations display prices in liters -

(Soundbite of cash register)

KASTE: - and supermarket cash registers have separate drawers for American and Canadian dollars.

Supermarket manager Jay Lewis says most of his shoppers hail from the great white North.

Mr. JAY LEWIS: Because the gas here is cheaper, and many of the groceries are cheaper.

KASTE: Around here, the border is still little more than a speed bump for Canadians on their way to the store. But Lewis says that will change if the U.S. starts requiring passports.

Mr. LEWIS: Mostly because folks are not going to make that investment to buy a passport just to come over to do a little bit of shopping.

KASTE: And there's more at stake here than just a little cross-border grocery shopping. In places like upstate New York, there are whole shopping malls dedicated to the Canadian clientele. Some northern hospitals have also come to rely on patients from Canada.

So it's no surprise that business interests from Washington to Maine have lobbied Congress to delay the passport requirement at land crossings - much to the frustration of border security hawks, like Republican Senator Charles Grassley.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): I'll tell you. If there would be another terrorist attack in the United States even on a tenth of a scale that New York City was, you would have an outcry - why isn't Congress doing more about this? And the arguments for delay would immediately come to a halt.

KASTE: Grassley is especially worried by the fact that government investigators testing border security have repeatedly been able to get through the land crossings using bogus driver's licenses.

Senator GRASSLEY: They were able to cross with false documents or some sort of tall tale. They got waved into our country.

Mr. KEN OPLINGER (Business for Economic, Security, Tourism and Trade) Documentation is not the issue here.

KASTE: Ken Oplinger is co-chairman of Business for Economic Security, Tourism and Trade, a U.S./Canadian trade group. He says the new rule would have done nothing to stop the 9/11 hijackers. After all, they all had valid passports.

Mr. OPLINGER: It's going to give us the perception that we're more secure because we're now taking passports only. And it may in the long run do us more harm than good because we may then decide, well, we're taking passports. We're more secure now and we're less concerned about some of the other issues that we know will make us more secure here in the States.

KASTE: For instance, Oplinger says it would do more good to give border agents better access to databases with information about suspected terrorists. Nevertheless, the Bush administration does seem intent on implementing the passport rule. While Congress has pushed the deadline off until 2009, the Department of Homeland Security says it may start requiring passports at land crossings as soon as next January.

Outside the Point Roberts grocery store, visiting Canadian Leslie Wilcox says the rule won't stop her from coming to the U.S. She already has a passport, as do 40 percent of her countrymen. That's compared to only about 25 percent of Americans.

She says American businesses shouldn't worry so much.

Ms. LESLIE COX: Canadians are very rule-conscious, and we follow the rules. You just trundle off and go get the paper.

KASTE: In fact, Canadian passport offices are starting to see long lines of applicants. It seems Canadians have already accepted the fact that visiting the American cousins is more of an international voyage than it used to be.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.