The new rule that anyone driving across the Canadian border must have a passport or passcard will "absolutely" begin in January, government officials said Friday, refuting a New York senator's claim the plan will be delayed.
Lawmakers from states along the northern border have been trying for months to stall or alter the plan to require the more secure identification documents, contending the rule will hurt trade and tourism.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was created by Congress to tighten security on both the Canadian and Mexican borders, but many members are now fuming at the notion their constituents will need a $97 dollar passport or a not-yet-developed passcard, expected to cost around $50. Children would be exempt.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer predicted Thursday the government won't be able to start in January, but Department of Homeland Security officials insist they will.
"We have a firm deadline and we're absolutely committed to moving forward with the implementation of western hemisphere travel requirements at our northern border," said DHS spokesman Russ Knocke.
The agency does not have a date for people to start applying for the new passcards, which are being created by the State Department, but Knocke said that would not affect the January launch.
Lawmakers have repeatedly passed legislation trying to delay the land-crossing requirements. On Wednesday, the House passed a measure designed to push back the starting date until 2009 or beyond.
But the administration is going ahead and Knocke rapped Schumer for fighting the security measure, launched after a recommendation from the 9/11 commission to make it harder for potential terrorists to use bogus documents to enter the United States.
"You can either be for security or against security," Knocke said, adding that some states have already begun discussions about creating new driver's licenses that would be so secure they could be used instead of passports.
Knocke said the agency has talked with state officials in Washington, Michigan, and Vermont about a driver's license program - though he added that should not be taken as a signal DHS is going to loosen its border requirements.
On Thursday, Schumer said DHS "drives me crazy" because of what he called their incompetence, particularly over the border passports issue. The New York senator said the agency formed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks should be broken up because it is too large to function well.
The DHS spokesman called those comments an affront to the agency's 208,000 employees.
"It is discouraging for them to hear senior officials or members of Congress constantly armchair quarterback what they do and suggest that the solution to our challenges is yet another reorganization," said Knocke. "The deck chairs have been reorganized enough."
Rather than criticize the agency, Schumer and other lawmakers should be encouraging people in their states to get passports, he said.
Schumer responded Friday that "the problem with the current DHS management is the with us or against our mentality. They should understand that careful planning and smart management can help us achieve both security and commerce."
Americans also will be required to carry a passport when they enter the U.S. from Mexico.
Currently, they can generally cross with a drivers license and, in the case of children, a birth certificate. Mexican citizens are required to have a biometric, machine-readable visa, known as a laser visa, that allows them to be in the country up to 90 days.