Border changes coming in a year

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By Marc Heller -- Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

WASHINGTON (MCT) - The Department of Homeland Security will not have the latest equipment in place for its new document requirements at the Canadian border, but will go ahead with the new rules in June 2009 anyhow, officials said March 27.

In final regulations outlining the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, DHS said it would put new technology in place gradually at ports of entry, although it has not said which border crossings will receive it.

By forging ahead with the plan, the department acknowledged it is bucking pleas from lawmakers and others to wait until all the necessary equipment is in place and working before requiring passports, new pass cards or other documents that prove citizenship. It also brushed off complaints that the document requirement will hurt tourism and cross-border business and create hardships for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and other Indian nations that rely on daily cross-border travel.

Rep. John M. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, echoed previous criticisms through his spokesman, Stephanie Nigro.

''Unfortunately, time and again, the departments of Homeland Security and State have unwisely hastened the process and attempted to implement this measure without the required technologies in place and with little regard to the economic consequences for our local communities,'' he said. ''I continue to strongly believe that the departments must install the necessary staff and equipment along the border before these requirements go into effect.''

In its announcement, DHS said border agents have been trained in using current equipment to accept machine-readable identity documents, and that training continues. It gave no timeline, however, for installing equipment at all crossings.

Critics say they worry that without the system fully in place, traffic delays are likely.

In its published final rule March 27, the department reported it received more than 1,700 comments warning that the requirement would bring economic harm to border communities and dampen trade. Nine hundred of those said the proposal would result in less trade and tourism, hurting revenues.

While U.S. Customs and Border Protection ''acknowledges that WHTI could have a negative impact on travel,'' the department said, an ''extensive'' study of eight border crossings with Canada and Mexico indicated an economic impact of less than 1 percent on local output and employment levels.

Economic effects have been a point of contention, however, and McHugh cited reports that the WHTI has already dampened economic activity near the border, before implementation.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has consistently downplayed any economic impact and recently told lawmakers and other critics to ''grow up'' after they complained the department was moving too fast.

In a series of nods to critics, however, the DHS said it would accept enhanced driver's licenses in Washington state and continue working toward similar licenses elsewhere, and officials promised a 14-month publicity campaign to make sure people are aware of the requirement. The department certified the Washington license as compliant with WHTI's requirement that citizenship be verifiable.

McHugh has been among lawmakers urging the use of driver's licenses to meet the requirement, an idea DHS long opposed.

The department also said it would implement an alternative procedure for youngsters on supervised school trips, for instance, in response to complaints that such travel would evaporate.

Officials said Indian tribes, such as the Mohawks, who rely on regularly crossing the border, would be allowed an alternative to passports or pass cards but only if a tribe shares ''appropriate parts of its tribal enrollment records'' with the federal government.

Copyright (c) 2008, Watertown Daily Times, N.Y. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.