Housebill could exempt children from passport req’s

Published on Thu, May 17, 2007 by ara Nelson

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House bill could exempt children from passport req’s

By Tara Nelson

Children under the age of 15 living in Point Roberts and attending school in Blaine could be exempt from passport requirements if a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this week is passed the Senate.

The bill (HR 1684), which authorizes $39.8 billion in funding for the activities of the Department of Homeland Security in 2008, adopts several provisions from a bill put forth by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) last February to help to mitigate economic impacts to border communities as a result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), said Amanda Mahnke, an assistant to Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), who co-sponsored Slaughter’s bill.

Larsen, who visited Blaine last March, said he was pleased with the bill and added that, if passed by the Senate, it would be particularly helpful for parents whose children who are bused from Point Roberts to school in Blaine and back each day.

“Every time a kid gets up to go to school, they should not have to have a birth certificate in their backpack,” he said. “That is ridiculously onerous.”

One of the other key provisions in Slaughter’s bill, titled the Protecting American Commerce and Travel, or PACT Act, would require DHS to conduct a nation-wide state driver’s license program as an alternative to the $97 passport that will be required at all land and sea crossings by January 2008 under WHTI.

This could help curb an anticipated drop in cross-border commerce, which border communities heavily rely on, he said.

Blaine’s Peace Arch Port of Entry border crossing is the third busiest northern border crossing and facilitates more than $43 million in trade between the two countries each day – a number that’s expected to increase substantially by 2013, given the region’s disproportionately high population growth, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures.

A January 2006 report by Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute (BPRI), for example, 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.

Larsen also supported Washington governor Christine Gregoire’s state-wide pilot border pass card project that will provide a cheaper alternative to the passport. Approved by DHS secretary Michael Chertoff last March, it is expected to cost between $35 and $40, and will be available by January 2008.

As of now, the WHTI requires all individuals crossing the U.S. border via air to possess a U.S. passport. For individuals crossing the U.S. border by land or sea, a driver’s license and birth certificate will suffice.

Other bill provisions:

• Requires DHS to complete an extensive cost-benefit analysis before implementing WHTI.

• Requires DHS to conduct a trial of passport card technology and share the results with Congress before issuing a final rule implementing WHTI.

• Requires DHS to develop a six-month grace period for travelers who are not carrying the required WHTI documentation.

• Requires DHS to develop a public outreach plan in coordination with the travel and trade community.

• Requires DHS to report to Congress every 120 days on implementation of WHTI.

• Harmonizes the application procedures for NEXUS and FAST and also information databases.

• Creates at least two new permanent NEXUS enrollment centers and at least two new mobile enrollment centers that can go to underserved areas for a short-period of time to enroll applicants.

• Creates an online application process whereby an applicant can submit payment and schedule their in-person interview with a Customs and Border Patrol official.

• Also creates a NEXUS customer-service phone number to address applicant and cardholder inquiries.

• Requires DHS to develop a NEXUS publicity campaign.

• Requires that NEXUS and FAST be acceptable documents under WHTI.

• Requires DHS to report to Congress on implementation of NEXUS/FAST provisions within 120 days after the bill’s enactment.

The bill passed the House 296-126, with 73 Republicans voting in favor. It now goes to the Senate, although President Bush said he plans to veto the bill because it could allow opportunities for greater collective bargaining of government employees.