New U.S. Passport Rules Postponed for at Least Six Months

By Spencer S. Hsu and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Bush administration yesterday postponed for at least six months a new security rule that Americans show a passport when crossing U.S. borders by land or by sea, requiring instead that citizens present an identity card and proof of citizenship upon entry for the first time, beginning Jan. 31.

Under the change, travelers returning from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean would no longer be able to make a verbal declaration of U.S. citizenship but would have to present a government-issued photo identification, such as a driver's license or certain "trusted traveler" cards, and a birth certificate.

Children under 16 years of age could present certified copies of birth certificates.

The Homeland Security and State departments said they expect to require passports or similar documents no sooner than the summer of 2008. The House and a Senate committee passed legislation last week to delay the requirement at land and sea crossings until June 2009.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the shift amid mounting controversy over the economic cost and disruption of security changes to residents and border trade.

The State Department two weeks ago acknowledged fumbling the first phase of the passport requirement, which began last January for air travelers. Noting that wait times for passports had climbed from three weeks to three months because of a backlog of 3 million applications, officials waived the rule until Sept. 30 for travelers who can show proof they had already applied.

Yesterday, Chertoff signaled a mix of flexibility and persistence, saying that he would work to accommodate the concerns of both lawmakers and industry.

"We're not going to drop the ax on January 1, 2008," Chertoff said.

But he maintained that streamlining the number of travel documents eligible for presentation under a program called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was a vital recommendation of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "Those who believe we should continue to allow 8,000 documents and oral declarations [of citizenship], are playing with fire. They are gambling with the security of this country," he said.

Critics said the new timeline is unrealistic because of what they called the Bush administration's abysmal implementation record.

The House Rules Committee chairwoman, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), whose district includes Buffalo, called the proposal "premature" and "not grounded in reality."

Roger Dow, head of the Travel Industry Association, said: "This two-tiered approach for land and sea will only make things more confusing for travelers."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company