New rules on hemi­spheric travel spur fear of pass­port log­jam

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Joyce Howard Price

Some travel-in­dus­try of­fi­cials said they feared a pass­port bot­tle­neck as new fed­eral reg­u­la­tions took ef­fect on Jan. 23 re­quir­ing Amer­i­canstoshowa­pass­port­toreen­ter the United States af­ter trav­el­ing to coun­tries in the West­ern Hemi­sphere.

But of­fi­cials at the State and Home­land Se­cu­rity de­part­ments, which im­ple­mented the changes, say most trav­el­ers who need pass­ports to com­ply with the new rules al­ready have them.

The first phase of the West­ern Hemi­sphere Travel Ini­tia­tive (WHTI) re­quires U.S. cit­i­zens trav­el­ing by air be­tween the United States and Canada, Mex­ico, Cen­tral and South Amer­ica, the Caribbean and Ber­muda to present a valid pass­port. In the past, many of th­ese des­ti­na­tions re­quired only a valid U.S. driver’s li­cense or other of­fi­cial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

The changes in travel re­quire­ments­dono­taf­fect­trip­stoand­from U.S.-con­trolled ter­ri­to­ries in the Caribbean,suchasPuer­toRi­coand the Vir­gin Is­lands.

The new rules were rec­om­mended by the Septem­ber 11 com­mis­sion and were passed into law as part of the Intelligence Re­form and Ter­ror­ism Pre­ven­tion Act of 2004. The rules are aimed at re­duc­ing the threat of ter­ror­ism and cre­at­ing a uni­form sys­tem to iden­tify trav­el­ers.

Cur­rently,trav­el­ers“may­makea ver­bal dec­la­ra­tion of cit­i­zen­ship” or “pro­duce 8,000 dif­fer­ent doc­u­ments” to try to show who they are as they try to cross the border, mak­ing au­then­ti­ca­tion of iden­tity both dif­fi­cult and time-con­sum­ing, said Der­wood Staeben, a se­nior ad­viser fortheS­tateDepart­ment’sCon­sular Af­fairs Bureau, which over­sees pass­ports. “In fis­cal 2005, our Cus­toms Bureau in­ter­cepted 75,000 fraud­u­lent doc­u­ments.”

A re­cent poll by Kayak.com, which­pro­videstrav­elin­for­ma­tionto about 2 mil­lion peo­ple a month, showed that “only a small per­cent­age of those plan­ning to get a pass­port” to com­ply with the new reg­u­la­tions “have even sent in their ap­pli­ca­tions,” said Steve Hafner, co­founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer ofthe­firm,which­ha­sof­ficesinNew Jer­sey and Mas­sachusetts.

“We think it could cre­ate a ma­jor back­log when the U.S. State De­part­ment starts pro­cess­ing all those ap­pli­ca­tions, once they are in the sys­tem,” Mr. Hafner said, not­ing that it al­ready takes six weeks for ap­pli­cants to ob­tain a pass­port.

In con­trast, data from the Home­land Se­cu­rity De­part­ment show that 86 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who have flown to the United States since Nov. 20 had pass­ports, lead­ing Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Michael Chertoff to say on Jan. 18 that he ex­pected a “rel­a­tively seam­less tran­si­tion.”

Over­all, about 73 mil­lion Amer­i­cans — or 27 per­cent to 28 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion — have pass­ports, Mr. Staeben said.

But Ileana Kera­sidis, man­ager of Sky­line Travel in Alexan­dria, Va., said her clients are ex­press­ing “tremen­dous con­cern” about po­ten­tial pass­port back­logs. ‘Start very early’

Steve Dahlgren, man­ager of Ticket to Ride, a travel agency in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., said he is “rec­om­mend­ing that peo­ple start very early” in the pass­port-ap­pli­ca­tion process.

“Forex­am­ple,if­some­oneis­plan­ninga­trip­inJulyand­woul­dusu­ally wait un­til May to ap­ply for a pass­port, we are ad­vis­ing them to ap­ply now,” Mr. Dahlgren said. “There is not much con­fi­dence the process will be smooth. I am not con­cerned that the State De­part­ment will be com­pletely over­whelmed, but I think it’s best to start early and be safe.”

The State De­part­ment says it has “ded­i­cated suf­fi­cient re­sources” to han­dle the nearly 4 mil­lion ad­di­tional ap­pli­ca­tions for pass­ports it ex­pects to re­ceive this year as a re- sultofthe­newre­quire­ments.It­says ithashired250newem­ploy­ee­store­view pass­port ap­pli­ca­tions.

“We’ve been pre­par­ing for this, and so we’re not ex­pect­ing a back­log,” Mr. Staeben said. “We don’t have­aback­log­now,even­thoughap­pli­ca­tion­sare­up51per­centover­last year. We process pass­ports in a sixweek pe­riod, and we ex­pect that to con­tinue.”

How­ever, Mr. Dahlgren said he’s heard from some clients who al­ready have waited at least eight weeks to get pass­ports. “There is a back­log,” he said.

The sec­ond phase of the WHTI, ex­pected to be­gin as early as Jan. 1, 2008, will re­quire cit­i­zens trav­el­ing back to the United States by land or sea — in­clud­ing fer­ries — to show pass­ports.

About 86 mil­lion peo­ple fly to the United States each year. But about four times that num­ber ar­rive in cars. As a re­sult, many of­fi­cials are ex­pect­ing pass­port ap­pli­ca­tions to rise dra­mat­i­cally next year. The State De­part­ment says it ex­pects 18 mil­lion­ap­pli­ca­tion­sin2008,up­from 12.1 mil­lion last year and an an­tic­i­pated 16 mil­lion this year. A price to pay

Be­cause the new pass­port re­quire­ments can add sharply to the cost of a trip — es­pe­cially for fam­i­lies — there seems to be in­creased client in­ter­est in travel to places that will­re­main­pass­port-free,saidDrew Pat­ter­son, a vice pres­i­dent at Kayak.com.

In most cases, a pass­port costs $97, which in­cludes a $30 ex­e­cu­tion fee. For chil­dren younger than 16, the cost is $82. Mr. Staeben said those prices will not rise un­der the new pol­icy.

But a cou­ple with three chil­dren who need pass­ports to travel some- where that pass­ports for­merly weren’t nec­es­sary will pay an­other $440.

And if they need a pass­port in a hurry,they­will­have­to­pay$60more per per­son — or a to­tal of $300 for a fam­ily of five — for the faster ser­vice. Mr. Staeben said pay­ing the “ex­pe­dite fee” typ­i­cally means ap­pli­cants will re­ceive pass­ports in two weeks rather than six.

Some ho­tel chains and tourism of­fices in parts of the Caribbean af­fected by the new rules, in­clud­ing Nas­sau and Par­adise Is­land in the Ba­hamas, are of­fer­ing pro­mo­tions that re­im­burse trav­el­ers who sud­denly need to get pass­ports.

As for what will hap­pen to U.S. cit­i­zens who at­tempt to re-en­ter the coun­try with­out a pass­port, the gov­ern­ment says the law al­lows the new doc­u­men­ta­tion re­quire­ments to be waived un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances.

“Th­ese ex­cep­tions in­clude in­di­vid­ual cases of un­fore­seen emer­gency and in­di­vid­ual cases based on ‘hu­man­i­tar­ian or na­tional-in­ter­est rea­sons,’ ” the State De­part­ment says in a fact sheet. Ex­empt­ing ‘snow­birds’

Mr. Chertoff said so-called “snow­birds” — Cana­di­ans spend­ing the win­ter in the United States — are also ex­empt from the new pass­port re­quire­ments. “We will al­low them to depart from the United States with­out hav­ing a pass­port for some sig­nif­i­cant pe­riod of time to avoid the prob­lem of peo­ple who may have come here last year” be­fore the re­quire­ment took ef­fect, he told re­porters two weeks ago.

There also will be ex­cep­tions for those with spe­cial cards is­sued for those who travel be­tween the United States and Canada for work, mer­chant marines with Coast Guard doc­u­ments and per­ma­nent res­i­dents with green cards.

In ad­di­tion, the State De­part­ment says it “has pro­cesses to as­sist U.S. cit­i­zens over­seas to ob­tain emer­gency travel doc­u­men­ta­tion for those with lost or stolen pass­ports.”

Orig­i­nally, the pro­posed date for im­ple­men­ta­tion of the air phase of WHTI was Jan. 1, rather than Jan. 23. But it was post­poned at the re­quest of the air­line in­dus­try “in or­der to fa­cil­i­tate hol­i­day travel,” the gov­ern­ment said.

Later this year, the State De­part­ment will be­gin pro­vid­ing credit-card-size Pass­port Cards or PASS Cards, which can be used as ID for land and sea travel be­tween the United States and Canada, Mex­ico, the Caribbean and Ber­muda.

Pass­port ap­pli­cants must ap­pear in per­son at a pass­port ac­cep­tance cen­ter, found in post of­fices, fed­eral court­houses, county clerk of­fices and even li­braries in some com­mu­ni­ties. Full in­for­ma­tion about the ap­pli­ca­tion process can be ob­tained at the State De­part­ment’s Web site (http://travel.state.gov/pass­port/pass­port_1738.html).

ed­i­tor Richard Slusser and re­searchers Amy Baskerville andClarkEber­ly­con­tribut­ed­tothis ar­ti­cle.

As­so­ci­ated Press

A line formed at a Mon­treal pass­port of­fice on Jan. 3 in ad­vance of new rules ef­fec­tive Jan. 23 that re­quire all air trav­el­ers to the U.S. to have a pass­port, in­clud­ing U.S. res­i­dents and cit­i­zens.

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