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PASS or Passport? Congress considers alternativesRichard Grabman 28.AUG.06ALPINE – According to estimates provided by Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, between 1,600 to 1,700 U.S. citizens cross the Mexico border at Presidio every day, Most are local residents or tourists, unlikely to spend more than a few hours out of the country. Even so, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is planning to require all U.S. citizens, regardless of age or how often they travel across the border, to show a passport when re-entering the U.S. In April 2005 the DHS announced the “Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative” (WHTI). The initiative was in response to concerns that travel documents were easily forged and fears that terrorists, like the 9/11 hijackers who entered the U.S. from Canada, could slip into the U.S. on easily obtained and unverified documentation. It mandated new border crossing procedures, including a requirement that U.S. citizens use “machine-readable” passports when re-entering the country. Under WHTI, passengers arriving by sea will have to show a passport after Jan. 1, 2007. For land border crossings, the new rules are set to go into effect in 2008. Rick Webster, vice- president for Governmental Affairs for a trade organization noted that, “only 23 percent of Americans hold passports,” and that people traveling to border destinations aren’t necessarily thinking of an international vacation. Machine-readable passports, to cost an estimated $97, could be a substantial cost to vacationing families spending only a few hours out of the country.It was “pretty clear” to Webster that the Bush Administration would not consider relaxing or changing these regulations. The Travel Association and Canadian travel groups pressed its case with congress. The U.S. Senate passed a bill to delay implementation of passport requirements sponsored by Alaska Republican Ted Stevens and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, both of whom represent states bordering Canada. The DHS slightly relaxed the regulations, offering a $55 “PASS” card for regular border crossers (similar to a border crossing card now used by Mexican citizens). In the House, representatives Louise Slaughter and John McHugh, both of N.Y., introduced another bill, not only to delay the new passport regulations but also to replace the need for an expensive new document with a cheaper alternative for citizens who regularly cross the border. Slaughter and McHugh introduced the “Protecting American Commerce and Travel” (PACT) Act in June, supported by 62 representatives from both parties, including Texas representatives Ron Paul, Lloyd Doggett, Sheila Jackson Lee, Silvestre Reyes, Charlie Gonzalez and Solomon OrtizPACT would push back all passport requirements until September 2009 under the new regulations. Webster, the travel association spokesman, said this was what he wanted. “We support a single date for implementation,” he said. PACT would also require DHS to create a PASS card for persons 16 and older costing no more than $20. The bill would also require the government to coordinate U.S. border crossing documentation requirements with Canadian and Mexican governments. PACT has broad political backing. At the recent Border Governor's conference, Rick Perry's closing remarks suggested support for the measure. He said, "We desire to ensure a reasonable implementation of new passport requirements in order to minimize the economic impact on border businesses." Congresswoman Slaughter’s spokesman, John Santore, said the representative was “cautiously optimistic” that PACT would replace the proposed WHTI regulations, preventing a costly alternative that could seriously impact local economies
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