Following on the heels of a decision by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to temporarily suspend new passport requirements for U.S. citizens traveling by air within the Western Hemisphere, Congress is pushing to delay further passport requirements governing travel via sea and land.
These moves stem from a massive increase in passport applications resulting from the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect January 23. WHTI requires U.S. travelers to present passports when flying to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. With the new temporary passport rules, U.S. citizens traveling to the above destinations who have applied for but haven’t received passports can still fly to and from U.S. airports as long as they have a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver’s license) and proof that they have applied for a passport. The temporary rules will stay in effect through September 30.
In the meantime, Congress wants to delay implementation of the next phase of WHTI that affects travel within the Western Hemisphere via sea and land. Last week the House and Senate passed separate amendments that would delay the launch of the land and sea components of WHTI until June 1, 2009, instead of the original January 1, 2008 deadline. The bills must be reconciled in a conference committee before moving forward.
Congress last year extended the deadline to June 1, 2009, with the understanding that DHS and the State Department still had the choice of implementing the land and sea requirements as early as January 1, 2008, if they met certain conditions set by Congress. Under the amendments passed last week, those departments would no longer have the choice to implement the requirements earlier than June 1, 2009.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who co-sponsored the Senate amendment, said in a joint press release that DHS and the State Department have yet to show that they’ll be able to successfully implement the WHTI air and sea requirements by January 1, 2008.
“Senator Leahy and I have followed this issue for nearly three years because there’s a real chance our states will be adversely impacted if these requirements are implemented in haste,” said Stevens. “Thousands of travelers must pass through Canada by road or by cruise ship each year in order to reach Alaska. Federal agencies need this extra time—they’re already struggling to keep up with an extreme increase in passport applications, and the full implementation of this initiative will generate even more requests. Without careful and thoughtful planning, the WHTI’s land and sea provisions could cripple the ability of Alaskans and others to travel to and from our state.”