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Homeland Security delays border crossing rules

/ Source: news services

American citizens won't need a passport to cross the land borders until the middle of next year, delaying that requirement by more than a year.

New identification document requirements, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State announced Thursday, will take effect June 1, 2009. By that date, U.S. travelers will need to present documents that show both identification and citizenship to cross back from Mexico and Canada. For most travelers, that will mean a passport.

The policy shift is the final step of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which changes document requirements for travelers who were previously exempt — including citizens of the U.S., Canada and Bermuda.

“We are on course to implement and enforce the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative which is an important step forward in securing the homeland,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. “Limiting and standardizing the types of documents presented will result in a more secure and efficient border. We will continue to encourage cross-border travel and trade while at the same time decreasing identity theft and fraud.”

Residents of border states who frequently cross the border have specialized ID cards for that purpose, called trusted traveler cards, and they will continue to be honored.

Two months ago, the government stopped allowing returning citizens to simply give an oral declaration of citizenship. Proof is now required, but a broad range of identification is acceptable. The rule set to go into effect in June of 2009 will greatly restrict the forms of acceptable documentation.

Leaving time to prepare
The rule was announced 14 months in advance so the public has enough notice and time to obtain documents, Homeland Security said in a press release.

Between now and June 1, 2009, the two federal agencies will conduct campaigns to inform U.S. and Canadian citizens about the new requirements. Their efforts will include, the press release said, will include special outreach to members of border communities who could be affected most by the changes.

Thursday’s announcement comes nearly two months after Homeland Security said it would no longer accept oral declarations of identity and citizenship.

The changes that took place in January were early steps to prepare the public for WHTI changes and allow travelers time to obtain passports or other relevant documents, Homeland Security said.

Prior to that, more than 8,000 different documents have been used to enter the United States, including library cards and student IDs. Proof-of-citizenship requirements greatly reduce the ability to sneak by border agents with fake papers, Chertoff said earlier this year. Border agents will now only accept about two dozen types of ID. However, under the new system agents will likely be examining many more birth certificates, which pose their own counterfeit risks.

Backlogs feared
The law's requirements for air travelers in 2007 was quickly followed by a massive backlog in passport applications, and some fear that will happen again this year as Homeland Security tries to go forward with the land and sea crossings.

The Bush administration envisions an eventual passport requirement for everyone crossing the border into the United States. Congress passed the travel requirements law in 2004 but is having second thoughts, particularly as northern-state lawmakers argue the passport requirement will hurt tourism and trade in their backyards.

WHTI is the latest bureaucratic battleground in the Bush administration's long effort to enact and enforce tougher national standards for identification, whether through passports, driver's licenses, or immigration documents.

NBC News’ Pete Williams and the Associated Press contributed to this report.