Delay for tight passport rules gains momentum

Charmyrle Burns
Charmyrle Burns prints a passport at Arkansas Passport Center in Technology Park at Hot Springs, Ark.Alison B. Harbour / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Are you planning on driving or cruising into Canada or Mexico next year? It's looking much more likely you won't need a passport for your travels.

The House voted overwhelmingly Friday to delay for 17 months new rules requiring passports for U.S. land and sea travelers entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.

“Nobody can say with the straight face that the federal government is ready for this,” said Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio. “My amendment simply asks the DHS to slow down and get it right this time.”

On Thursday, The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the delay to June 1, 2009 because of a huge backlog in issuing new U.S. passports. That snarl followed another rule change — tightening requirements for some air travel by U.S. citizens — earlier this year.

The new passport requirement for land and sea travel, which would also mean Canadians traveling into the country will have to show passports or high-tech identification that can be scanned at borders, was supposed to begin on Jan. 1, 2008.

Last week, the United States said it was entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean just as the summer travel season was beginning. The Jan. 23, 2007, start of the passport requirement for air travelers was put off until October if travelers can show that they have applied for passports.

The full Senate is expected to consider the delay to the measure in coming weeks.

Congressional offices have been inundated by calls from constituents whose passport requests were caught up in a backlog as U.S. citizens scrambled to get passports.

Lawmakers say they have heard from people who waited months for their passports and were forced to cancel travel plans because of the problem.

But the Homeland Security Department is still pressing ahead to require passports of everyone driving across the border into Canada or Mexico beginning in January 2008 — a rule that some experts believe will lead to a fourfold increase in demand for new passports.

The passport application surge is the result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that since January has required U.S. citizens to use passports when entering the United States from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean by air. It is part of a broader package of immigration rules enacted after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Before then, for example, U.S. citizens freely crossed the 5,500 mile U.S.-Canada border, often with no security checks. Those who were stopped could show passports, drivers' licenses, birth certificates or various other forms of identification.