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Published: Friday, 6/8/2007

US border rules suspended to help ease backup in passport approvals this summer

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration on Friday suspended some of its new, post-Sept. 11 requirements for flying abroad, hoping to placate Congress and irate summer travelers whose vacations have been thwarted by delays in processing their passports.

The proposal would temporarily lift a requirement that U.S. passports be used for citizens flying to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. The rule, and its suspension, does not affect Americans driving across the Canadian or Mexican borders or taking sea cruises, although those travelers are expected to need passports beginning next year.

The suspension should allow the State Department to catch up with a massive surge in applications that has overwhelmed passport processing centers since the rule took effect this year. The resulting backlog has caused up to three-month delays for passports and ruined or delayed the travel plans of thousands of Americans.

Until the end of September, travelers will be allowed to fly without a passport if they present a State Department receipt, showing they had applied for a passport, and government-issued identification, such as a driver's license. Those who have not applied for a passport will not be allowed to travel.

Those with receipts but no passports would receive additional security scrutiny, which could include extra questioning or bag checks.

"This is further evidence that the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department are simply not ready to make this program work as well as it must," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said his office has had to intervene in the cases of more than 1,400 Minnesotans frustrated by the backlog.

"DHS's decision to suspend is simply common sense, and frankly, should have been made months ago," said Coleman.

The change would help those like Judy and Darrell Green, of Rifle, Colo., who are still waiting to hear whether their son-in-law's passport will arrive in time for a a family vacation to Mexico to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary and Darrell's 60th birthday.

Darrell Green's passport arrived Thursday, only after Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., helped expedite it. Their son-in-law expects to get his Friday with the help of his congresswoman.

"It makes you feel kind of frantic because you've spent all that money," Judy Green said.

Homeland Security signed off on the proposal Thursday after consultations with the State Department, the White House and members of Congress, who have been deluged with calls from angry constituents seeking help with their passports.

Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., whose district lies near the Canadian border, said White House officials had been on Capitol Hill trying to work out a compromise amid what he called a "turf war" between State and Homeland Security.

Reynolds faulted "arrogant" officials for failing to get the system working properly, and said he was worried about even more headaches next year when passports will be required to drive into Canada or Mexico.

Lawmakers had been pushing for a change for weeks.

"To say people must have a passport to travel and not give people a passport is right up there in the stupid column," said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who urged the State Department to lift the rule last month.

The application surge is the result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that since January has required U.S. citizens to use passports when entering the United States from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean by air. It is part of a broader package of immigration rules enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Between March and May, the department issued more than 4.5 million passports. It has millions more to process, according to consular affairs officials.

Wilson's office took more than 500 calls from frustrated travelers seeking help in May alone. The problem has since spread from border states to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Colorado and elsewhere.

This summer may not spell the end of the passport crunch. DHS has insisted it plans to go ahead with a January 2008 start for requiring passports at all land border crossing in the United States _ a security measure that could trigger a new frenzy applications. The State Department is still working on creating a cheaper, passcard alternative for such land crossings.

Read more in later editions of The Bladeand toledoblade.com



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