Passports to be required of citizens re-entering U.S.

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U.S. citizens and others traveling to and from the United States will be required to show passports when entering or re-entering the United States beginning Dec. 31, 2007.

This new security measure, known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, is an effort to increase protection of American borders, as well as discourage potential terrorists from entering the country, said Jarrod Aegan, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“There are multiple reasons why an initiative like this was created,” Aegan said. “But our priority was to deter terrorism, especially now that it is easy to use illegal documents to get into the United States.”

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, also known as the 9/11 Intelligence Bill, stipulated that the secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the secretary of State, should develop a plan that would require all U.S. citizens to present passports when entering the country.

The initiative will be implemented in three stages. Beginning Dec. 31, 2005, travelers entering the United States by air or sea from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Central and South America will be required to show passports.

As of Dec. 31, 2006, travelers entering the United States by air or sea from Mexico and Canada will be required to show passports. By Dec. 31, 2007, all travelers entering the United States by air, sea and land will be required to show passports when entering the country, regardless of which countries they are coming from.

Under current law, U.S. citizens are only required to show a valid driver license or birth certificate when entering or re-entering the United States, Aegan said.

“Currently, a birth certificate and driver license is acceptable at the borders,” Aegan said. “(The travel initiative) will give us a more standardized way of requesting documents.”

The International Council of Cruise Lines backs the travel initiative because the organization believes it will make American borders safer by deterring potential terrorists, said Lindsay Rothman, an employee of the organization.

“I think (the travel initiative) will definitely deter terrorism,” Rothman said. “It will secure our borders better and make the United States, and cruise lines safer.”

The U.S. departments of Homeland Security and State are still working out the specifics. Once the rules have been formally published, they will be open for input or comment by federal officials, Rothman said.

“The official rules, after comments and suggestions have been made, will not be released until the fall,” Rothman said.

Once the rules have been approved, the official travel initiative will take 60 days to be made public, Aegan said.

“We think that from a security perspective, it is a good initiative,” Rothman said. “The only problem we have is the first deadline, which will affect the people who are traveling to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Central and South America, and will not have enough time to get a passport (to meet) the first deadline.”

According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the processing time required when obtaining a passport is approximately 6-8 weeks, and first-time applicants must apply in person.

A second concern for the International Council of Cruise Lines has been that the travel initiative might affect the influx of tourists that come into the country, Rothman said.

“(The initiative) will definitely affect tourism,” Rothman said. “Imagine for a family of five to get passports. This means they will spend $500 extra (on) their vacation.”

According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the passport fee for a person 16 or older is $97, while passports for those under the age of 16 is $82. Those renewing their passports pay a fee of $67.

Passports are valid for 10 years once they have been issued.

Representatives with the Travel Industry Association of America said they think it is too soon to tell if tourism will be affected.

“At this point, it is too early to tell how much the travel industry will be affected,” said Edward Fluhr, manager of legislation affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America. “(We are) waiting for a definitive draft rule before our organization comments on the effects of this initiative.”

The Department of Homeland Security has responded to some of the concerns surrounding the travel initiative, and has been working on ways to solve these concerns and make the plan appealing for both the travel and trade industries, Aegan said.

“We have heard about the concerns in the travel and trade (industries),” Aegan said. “What will happen is that it will go into public comment to make it appealing for everyone in the (industries).”