In response to concerns over allowing children to visit Canada and the United States, the U.S. government announced last week that new passport rules to be implemented in January 2008 will be altered.
Children younger than 16 years old will not be required to have passports so long as they have parental consent.
In January this year, all persons traveling by air are required to have passports to enter the United States. Even U.S. citizens will now be required to have passports to leave and to enter the country. This created a large backlog of passport applications both in the U.S. and in Canada.
There were a number of complaints, but the governments cited security and border control and implemented the plans.
The second phase of the plan is that in January 2008, all persons crossing the borders by land or by sea will also require passports. For most North Americans, this is an unaccustomed process. Especially Americans are unused to obtaining and carrying passports, something that most citizens of most countries accept as a part of daily life.
However, until last year, approximately 25% of Americans had ever had a passport, a significant number of whom never actually needed to use them.
With the new requirement, it is estimated that approximately 33% will have passports by the end of this year, with even more requiring them for travel beginning in 2008.
However, it is acknowledged that obtaining passports is expensive, currently costing about $100 USD for adults and approximately $75 USD for children in the U.S.
This is seen as burden on some families and potentially discriminatory against some children who could miss out on educational opportunities that require cross-border travel.
So, the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary talked about the relaxation of the rules in a speech last Thursday to the Detroit Economic Club before touring the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, a link with Windsor, Ontario under the Detroit River.
"This is going to make it a lot easier for kids to cross the border without having to get passports and passcards," Chertoff said. "By the way, it's specifically designed to make it cheaper for families."
Additionally, U.S. and Canadian citizens ages 16 through 18 traveling with school, religious, cultural or athletic groups and under adult supervision will also be allowed to travel with only their birth certificates.
The rule is designed, for example, to allow sports teams and other groups to go back and forth without disrupting their schedule or placing an unfair burden on their family finances, provided they are properly chaperoned.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat New York, a longtime critic of the overall passport requirements because of the impact on the economy of border states, said he was pleased by the exemption for those under age 15.
"That's a great first step and now we're going to have to make sure they do it for everyone over 15 as well," Schumer said.
Schumer said he would introduce legislation that would delay implementation of the passport requirement until at least June 2009. The bill also would require studies on the economic impact of the initiative on each border state, and to test an enhanced driver's license program as an alternative to passports in at least one location.
Any alternative to passports would have to cost adults no more than $20 and be free for children, under the bill.
Senator Schumer has characterized the Department of Homeland Security's approach to implementing a new passport requirement for travelers "half-baked," and has promised to use his new clout in the Democratic Congress to block it.
"The tourism industry in Buffalo and Erie County [New York] is a billion dollar industry," said Rich Geiger, president of the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It's an industry that we need to protect." His comments are indicative of the financial problems the new rules can cause.
Beginning last Jan. 23, nearly all air travelers entering the U.S. who are citizens of Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean -- as well as returning American citizens -- have been required to display passports.
Under the current relaxed rules, children entering the United States by air will still be required to show passports.
When the new requirements for travelers crossing land and sea borders take effect, it will bring residents of Western Hemisphere nations under the same rules as travelers from the rest of the world.
Last October, Congress passed an amendment sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, and Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, that would postpone the day the land and sea rules take effect for as long as 17 months, until June 2009, if certain conditions have not been met.
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