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Old 09-05-2006, 11:54 AM   #1
scubapro5
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Default U.S. Travelers Face New Passport Rules

U.S. Travelers Face New Passport Rules
Restrictions on Re-Entry From Caribbean, Mexico, Canada Mean Many Must Get Documents Soon

By SCOTT MCCARTNEY, The Wall Street Journal

The time to start packing for that winter trip to the Caribbean may be now -- you are going to need a passport.

Congress and the Department of Homeland Security are tightening border procedures for both U.S. citizens and foreign travelers entering the U.S. By Jan. 8, passports will be required for most everyone entering the U.S. from the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico through airports and seaports, instead of just a birth certificate and driver's license. Land borders will adopt the same requirement Jan. 1, 2008.

The travel industry and several border-state governors and senators have been pushing for a delay in the new rules, fearing confusion and long delays for travelers that could hurt the cruise industry in particular. Only 25% of Americans have passports, and many could be left high and dry if they don't get one before they head off to an island cruise. As requirements tighten, more people have been applying. Last year, the State Department issued 10.1 million passports, up 15% from 2004. This year is on pace for about a 16% increase.

One pitfall for travelers to watch out for: All children, including babies, will need passports. Since July 2001, the government has required both parents to apply together for a child's passport, if the child is 14 or under. This is to make sure one parent isn't trying to take a child out of the country without the other's permission. It can be a hassle for single parents who have to prove they have sole authority or need to get notarized consent from the other parent.

Another change: Last month, the State Department began issuing electronic passports with a computer chip in the rear cover that contains all the information found on the data page of the passport, such as name, date of birth, passport number and a photograph. For security protection, the e-passports have a metallic material in the front cover and the data are encrypted to prevent eavesdropping. (People with older-style passports don't need to trade theirs in.)

Even if travelers are ready, travel experts say the government may not be well-prepared, and the result of the heightened security could be long lines at airports and seaports. The Travel Industry Association, a lobbying group for cruise lines, tour companies, resorts and airlines, says it supports the move to require better documentation, but it fears the government won't have the staff, equipment and procedures in place needed to process people quickly.

"We're very concerned about the impact on the cruise industry. We're very concerned about the impact on Canadian travel," said Rick Webster, TIA's vice president of government affairs.

The government says it is going ahead with the change starting Jan. 8. The deadline was pushed back a week from the first day of the year so it wouldn't kick in during holiday travels. That has been the only delay granted so far. "If you're going to the Caribbean next February or March, you'd better start worrying about a passport this fall," says Frank Moss, the State Department's head passport official.

Homeland Security has been under orders from Congress to beef up border security since the 2001 terrorist attacks. The biggest change took hold in 2004, when the U.S. government began taking a photograph and finger scan of most foreigners entering the country through airports.

That change has yielded some disturbing results: 1,353 people have been caught trying to enter with false identity since 2004, including some felons and prison escapees. "It's a big number and it's a bit disconcerting," said Robert Mocny, director of Homeland Security's US-VISIT program.

Most of the offenders are simply turned away and sent back. The fingerprint scans have helped catch an escapee from federal prison who tried to return to the U.S. after 22 years on the lam, and a dozen or so other criminals. It is unclear whether any terrorism suspects have been thwarted, officials say, citing one case of a terrorism suspect who escaped U.S. custody in Iraq and was caught applying for a visa to enter the U.S. from Jordan with false documents.

Most foreigners entering the U.S. by air, with the exception of most Canadians and permanent legal U.S. residents, have to have both index fingers scanned and a digital photograph recorded. Within 10 seconds, the system compares those images with fingerprints from more than 60 million people in the database, including prints taken off caves in Afghanistan and fragments from terrorist bombs. When foreigners apply for visas to enter the U.S., they now are required to have a finger scan so that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents can verify identity.

Despite initial grumbling that the process was intrusive and unwarranted and would curb travel to the U.S., international travel has been increasing and officials say processing at airports has actually sped up because inspectors have assurance of a person's identity when the green light on the finger scanner goes on. The success has led other nations in Europe and Asia to begin adopting similar measures.

The latest proposed changes may be harder to implement for screening the 400 million people who cross into the U.S. every year, raising fears of long lines at airports, sea ports and roadway crossings.

The State Department and Homeland Security say passport books take too long to process at high-volume land-border checkpoints, so they are developing a "passport card" that will have your information embedded electronically and will communicate wirelessly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement computers, much like a toll tag on the highway. So, by the time you get to the front of the line, the border inspector would have your information and would know whether you should be cleared to pass.

Passport cards won't be ready for the Jan. 8 change at airports and seaports, but should be available before the Jan. 1, 2008 change at land entry points.

The American Civil Liberties Union says it doubts the system will be ready. "To some extent, it's vaporware. There's not the capacity to build or operate," says Barry Steinhart, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program.

Homeland Security also has proposed forcing the 11 million permanent legal residents of the U.S. -- green-card holders -- to cross border checkpoints with foreign nationals, not U.S. citizens. The change could take effect next year. Immigration advocates and civil-liberties groups say it is overly invasive since those people already have been vetted. Homeland Security says the change will boost security.

One major hole in the system is that US-VISIT, which stands for U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, has been criticized for not tracking people when they leave the country, leaving it unhelpful to determine if people have overstayed their visas, as three of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers did.

Homeland Security is testing exit kiosks that ask for fingerprints at a few airports. The agency has found it difficult to get people to use the kiosks because they aren't part of the regular airport routine.

Balancing border security and free travel is a struggle. The U.S. needs borders that are efficiently crossed, both for trade and tourism. Business travelers and vacationers need to be able to move quickly, yet the need for careful security has been painfully demonstrated.

"Our goal is not to make our borders more congested," says Mr. Moss of the State Department, "but to move our borders into the 21st century."
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