DHS delays plans for land-sea passport requirement

The Homeland Security Department announced Wednesday that it will hold off until at least the summer of 2008 on plans to require Americans and Canadians entering the United States by land and sea to present passports.

The proposed rule would call for U.S. and Canadian citizens traveling by land or sea to present a government-issued photo ID and proof of citizenship, but not a passport, as of Jan. 31, 2008. This would end the practice of accepting an oral declaration of identity. The passport requirement would likely kick in that summer.

A DHS statement described the proposal as "the first rational step as we move towards full [Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative] implementation." But it remains a retreat from the initial goal of requiring all land and sea travelers to present passports upon entry starting in January 2008.

"We are not going to drop the axe on January 1, 2008," said Michael Chertoff, secretary of DHS, during a press conference Wednesday. "We are, as I promised a few months ago, going to develop a glide path to get this implemented in a way that gets it done in real time but doesn't jam it in a way that causes an enormous amount of disruption."

Prior to Wednesday's announcement, members of Congress and the National Federation of Federal Employees local representing passport services workers had expressed concern about the timeline.

Colin Walle, president of NFFE Local 1998, said the postponement will ease the strain on the State Department, which processes applications for U.S. passports.

The first major step of the initiative, which required all Western Hemisphere air travelers to present passports upon reaching the United States, caused a tremendous backlog at State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, with the waiting time for new or renewed passports doubling in many cases.

In response, DHS recently announced that air travelers with pending passport applications may travel in the Western Hemisphere until Sept. 30 with proof that they've applied for a passport.

Currently, the passport agencies are focused on processing documents for air travelers in anticipation of the Sept. 30 rule reinstatement. But Walle said the State Department must take action to ensure that a similar backlog does not occur as the land-sea rule date approaches.

"There are going to be a lot of applicants, so hopefully they're publishing a date no earlier than next summer, and I have my doubts that that is reasonable," Walle said. "It is possible, but they're going to have to hire and train a ton more people."

An official at the State Department would not comment specifically on how the proposed rule would affect the backlog, saying only, "We at the Department of State remain committed to meeting America's record demand for passports, both now and in the future."

While, according to the proposed rule announcement, DHS and the State Department expect the date of full implementation to be during summer 2008, the specific date will be determined by a number of factors, including the availability of compliant documents on both sides of the border. DHS will formally announce the date with at least 60 days of notice.

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