WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will delay for at least six months a rule that Americans present passports when crossing the U.S. border by land or sea, officials said Wednesday.
The announcement marks the second time in a month that officials have scaled back security plans in response to complaints.
Beginning in January, land and sea travelers returning from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda will be allowed to present a birth certificate and driver’s license in lieu of a passport.
Starting next year, travelers also will no longer be able to make a verbal declaration of U.S citizenship to re-enter the country.
The modification is expected to last at least until the summer of 2008, when officials hope to require passports or similar documentation at all land and sea crossings.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the proposed rules and new flexibility after a passport requirement for air travel to those countries produced monthslong delays in processing passport applications at the State Department.
Even as recently as last week, DHS officials had insisted in the face of a public outcry that they were going forward with the tougher regulations on land and sea crossings starting in January.
Chertoff tried a different approach Wednesday.
“We are not going to drop the ax on Jan. 1, 2008,” said Chertoff. “We’ve come to understand that it’s important to build flexibility in our systems.”
The announcement that officials would ease into the new rule was greeted with scorn by lawmakers critical of the agency.
Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., called it “more of the same bureaucratic doublespeak.”
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“They ask us to trust them to get this right. Frankly these two agencies haven’t earned the trust of this Congress or the American people,” said Reynolds.
The impending rule in January has rankled those living on the northern border, where people frequently cross into Canada for casual shopping and sports events.
That anger spread to all sections of the country in recent months as travelers faced a logistical nightmare of trying to get passports in time for travel. The waiting time for passports soared from around six weeks to more than three months, delaying or ruining the travel plans of thousands of Americans.
Chertoff, who in February pronounced the program was proceeding “flawlessly,” on Wednesday called the current delays “a hiccup.”
“I’m obviously dismayed that there was a problem in producing passports,” he said.
But he also cautioned that without tougher rules the United State will remain unnecessarily vulnerable to terrorists using false documents to sneak across the border.
Under a post-Sept. 11 security law passed by Congress, U.S. citizens were to be required to show passports at such land and sea crossings beginning in 2008.
At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, took the blame for the passport mess, even as she offered a wide array of explanations.
Part of the problem, she said, was that in 2005 Hurricane Katrina reduced the capabilities of the agency’s New Orleans passport office. She also said the agency had not expected so many Americans to actually obey the new law.
And, she said, many people were applying for passports with no specific travel plans in mind — but that is precisely what northern state lawmakers had warned would happen for those living along the U.S. border who do not plan such trips far in advance.
Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, said he thought the agency’s new schedule was still “overly optimistic,” but was glad they were at least “giving themselves some wiggle room and could delay implementation further if needed.”
Complaints from the public and from Congress about the passport delays forced the Bush administration on June 8 to suspend the air travel passport requirement until September.
Officials announced that those flying back from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda may now do so until September with an identification card like a driver’s license and a printout from a State Department Web site showing they have applied and are still waiting for a U.S. passport.
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