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Passport deadline sparks heated debate

<div>Have passport, will travel. Have no passport, may still travel, but maybe not how and where you want. Starting January 23, almost all air travelers, including American citizens, will need a passport to enter the United States — a change has sparked an angry debate about security, cross-border commerce and the changing face of international travel.</div>
U.S Begins To Tighten Border Procedures
Beginning January 23, U.S. passengers traveling by air will be required to show a passport when traveling to Mexico or the Caribbean. Congress is also pushing to require passports when traveling by land or sea to from the United States to Mexico or Canada by early 2008. Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

Have passport, will travel.

Don’t have a passport? You can still travel, but maybe not how and where you want.

Now in effect, almost all air travelers entering the United States will be required to have a passport, including American citizens returning from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Come back from those destinations with just a driver’s license or birth certificate — as millions have done for years — and you could be looking at an awkward or unpleasant encounter at the airport.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the new rule has sparked an angry debate. From the cost and inconvenience to crackpot conspiracy theories, it seems everybody has an opinion on the subject.

Issues and insults
Some of that debate has been waged on MSNBC’s message boards (and in my mailbox), prompted, in part, by a . At the time, the government had announced a new twist in the pending regulations: Instead of applying to all travelers, it would apply only to those traveling by air. People traveling by land or sea, e.g., driving to Canada or cruising to the Caribbean, would be exempt for at least another year.

At the time, I wrote that the inconsistent application of the new rule was unfair and likely to cause more confusion for travelers. I also argued that cost and inconvenience were poor excuses for not getting a passport. And I may have suggested that, well, anyone who travels out of the country should just get off the pot and get one.

Hoo boy, did I strike a nerve.

Some readers took me to task when I suggested that the cost — $97, plus photo fees, for a new adult passport, $82 for children — was reasonable because it could be prorated over a 10-year period (five years for those under 16). I still believe that, but I also appreciate the problem faced by the couple with two children whose long-planned trip to the Caribbean would now cost almost $400 more. Numbers like that can make or break a vacation.

Others commented on other, ancillary costs, especially once the new rules are applied to travel by land or sea. “$100 is a ton of money if you go to Canada for medical care,” wrote someone who, I might add, was willing to share some four-letter feelings, but not his or her name. Name-calling aside, that’s a valid point, as are the potentially devastating costs to many border towns as potential visitors rethink their plans. Even non-travelers will feel some pain.

Big Brother?
Then there were those who felt the new issue was simply the latest evidence of government malfeasance. “This is just another form of taxation,” argued one reader. “It’s another money-making gimmick for the government,” said another, “so they can give jobs to family and friends through cronyism.” Both went on to say they would forgo a passport altogether and travel only to destinations that didn’t require one.

But my favorite comments came from those who saw, not government greed, but rather a step on a slippery slope toward something worse. “Pretty soon, our [government] is going to want us to get a passport to go from state to state,” wrote one correspondent. And newer e-passports, equipped with RFID (radio frequency identification) chips, mean the government will be able to track our whereabouts and, by extension, our activities. “They say it’s for ‘security,’” wrote another, “but don’t believe them. It’s all about control.”

Honestly, I’m not sure how to respond to that, so instead, I’ll let another reader take a crack at it: “I’ve worked for the government, and there is nobody working for the government who has the ambition, willpower or intellectual capacity for such a diabolical plot as tracking your every move.”

Feel better now?

Just do it
Not everyone thought I was an idiot (or had an inappropriate relationship with my mother). Many readers, in fact, wrote in to say that it was about time passports were required for all international travel, regardless of the destination or mode of transport.

Some cited practical benefits. For one thing, unlike driver’s licenses, passports include no address information. (“I feel secure at the airport as I leave town without having to disclose my address,” wrote one reader.) For another, lost passports are easily replaced. (“Why would you want to carry something irreplaceable like a birth certificate?” wrote another.)

Most, though, took a more philosophical position, agreeing with the idea that getting a passport is a rite of passage and a sign that you’re a citizen, not just of the U.S., but of the world. “Welcome to the reality of the rest of the world,” wrote one correspondent. “Now get out there and travel. It's the only way to truly educate yourself about our world!”

Or, as a somewhat more poetic reader put it, “Quit whinin’ and start applyin’.”