Feds: ‘Fighting WHTI is not going to help’
Border communities concerned about the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which would require passports for travelers at all border crossings, should explore alternatives rather than fight the legislation, U.S. Consul General Lewis Lukens said last week.
Lukens was a guest speaker at an international conference organized by the Border Policy Research Institute (BPRI) at Western Washington University on February 15, in which state and local officials as well as business groups from both sides of the border met to discuss cross-border mobility and commerce.
“Fighting WHTI is not going to help,” he said. “Putting
your head in the sand and pretending it’s not there
is not going to make it go away.”
The statement came in response to several skeptical remarks made from U.S. and Canadian business leaders concerning the potential economic impact the legislation may have on cross-border commerce – especially with regards to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.
As of now, the WHTI requires all individuals crossing the U.S. border via air travel to possess a U.S. passport.
That rule will expand to land and water travel beginning January 1, 2008 and business leaders are concerned about the potential impacts to border communities such as Blaine, Point Roberts and Sumas.
A January 2006 report by BPRI predicts the expense and inconvenience of mandating a secure document such as a passport could result in a net loss of $10 million-per year in the amount of goods and services purchased by Canadian visitors to Whatcom County.
study by the B.C. Council of Tourism Associates predicts
that the passport requirement will likely result in $3.6
million in lost tourism receipts to British Columbia
between now and 2010.
Lukens, however, argued increases in efficiency from a universal identification document could decrease border wait times, possibly increasing cross-border commerce.
“When more citizens have passports and American citizens have passport cards, the delays at the border will be reduced and I guarantee you the border lines will go down, you will travel faster, more securely and trade and tourism will improve,” he said.
His comments were met with skepticism from audience members including Port Angeles mayor Karen Rogers.
“Those of us who have been very vocal with WHTI have, number one, always supported security, and number two we’ve asked for a sensible implementation of WHTI. But I can guarantee that of the $27 million industry that comes into Port Angeles, people are not going to spend $100 or $50 to take a $10 ferry ride,” Rogers said.
“We are already down 25 percent the first year and 27 percent last year just from the confusion. I can tell you the dose of reality is my community and its economy. We have to come up with a better solution.”
Bellingham/Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce president Ken Oplinger disagreed with Lukens.
“We’ve been ramping up the rhetoric to try and assure that WHTI is implemented in a way that is not going to hurt communities like ours,” he said. “We continue to hear things about efficiency issues and that the WHTI is going to increase efficiency. I’m right there seeing two or three-hour line-ups we sometimes have in the summer months but WHTI’s purpose was never to address efficiency, rather, it’s a security issue. And for you to continue to use efficiency in an attempt to advance your agenda is wrong.”
Ernie Bartucci, executive director of operations for the Ontario Minister of Transportation, called for a more flexible interpretation of WHTI and cited an example of a community on the Alaskan/ Yukon border that has one school district between two countries.
“It’s important for us to bring these issues forward because we need a flexible policy and we need a policy that makes sense to our communities,” he said, advocating the PASS card pilot project for Washington state, which would create a credit card-sized federally-issued drivers license.
“There are so many unique circumstances that the guys in D.C. could never dream of and that’s why it’s extremely important for this pilot project to go forward. This is not rocket science, we just need to have a common sense approach.”
Lukens said that because the WHTI has been widely advertised, the recent implementation of passport requirements for air travelers went smoothly.
He also said he expects the January 1, 2008 implementation of land and sea travelers to have a relatively smooth transition and have little economic impact on border communities.
“From our perspective, air and communication of WHTI was a complete success with CBSA and CBP officers are now reporting a 99.9 percent compliance rate at those points of entry,” he said. “We planned ahead, we had additional staffing, we advertised it and we’re now processing between 250 and 300,000 passports each week without delays. We are confident that the land implementation of WHTI will also go smoothly.”
Bellingham immigration attorney Greg Boos disagreed, and voiced his support for a recent piece of legislation put forth by U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY), that would eliminate WHTI requirements at land crossings.
“I don’t think too many people were surprised by the smooth transition of air implementation since many of the airlines had required passports prior to WHTI,” he said. “The WHTI was part of a larger bill. Many of those people who voted for it would not even know what a secure travel document was.”