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Customs says security rules won't harm economy

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Though some fear upcoming increases in border security could cost the country millions, Customs and Border Patrol officials say the changes will be slow and smooth.

"A lot of gloom and doom gets predicted," said Robert Gomez, director of the Customs and Border Patrol office in Atlanta, "but we're hoping to make this a big non-event."

Starting on Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security is requiring Americans and Canadians to show proof of citizenship and identity.

Now, Americans and Canadians can verbally declare their citizenships, particularly at the Canadian and Mexican borders, and when returning from island cruises. At the end of the month, however, that will end. Everyone will be required to show identification, such as a passport, a military identification card, or a driver's license plus a birth certificate.

The move comes in response to the terrorist attacks in 2001 as a preliminary move before the Department of Homeland Security institutes the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in 2009.

Currently, a traveler entering the U.S. can claim to be a citizen of the country or of Canada, or present one of 8,000 forms of identification. In mid 2009, only a passport will be accepted. The present system has been deemed dangerously porous. Officials report more than 1,500 people have been caught in the last three months claiming to be American or Canadian and contending they didn't need documentation. Hence, the Jan. 31 roll-out is a preliminary measure.

"How many false declarations do you want to let in, if there's particular danger from terrorists and criminals?" Gomez asked. "It's all moving in the direction of us trying to figure out why people are coming into the country and if they're permitted. We're moving in a direction where we're better able to identify that people are who they say they are."

Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association, said he is afraid the government is moving too quickly with this preliminary step, and may not have calculated the consequences. He calls it a "$675 million issue," saying if just five percent of Canadians are surprised by the additional hassle and decide not to travel to the U.S., then the economy would lose $675 million in the next year.

Dow said his organization supports the change, believing it will make America safer, but he also wants Customs and Border Patrol to consider the country's economic security.

"This will cause serious economic damage for many border states and destinations," Dow said. "You cannot just have a few press conferences, when you're making a change like this. The poor traveler who travels once in a while is going to get to the border and say, 'huh?' If you don't have a robust, comprehensive communication program, then you're going to jam the system. I don't care if it's a movie theater, an ice cream store or the U.S. border, people are going to say the line's too long, they're going to go home."

Even though the change was officially announced late last year, Gomez said, in fact, border agents have been notifying the travelers for more than a year. The roll out also is "soft," and individual agents will have the discretion to accept unofficial proof of citizenship, easing the public into the new program.

"For now, we're going to be real flexible on the documents," the Atlanta border and customs director said. "As you look down into the future, with travel increasing, there has to be ways to get through borders quickly without sacrificing safety."

Even if there is a sluggishness at the border, initially, the long-term effect is expected to speed up border crossings. New documents, expected to be available later this year, will allow American and Canadian travelers to be pre-screened and move quickly through security.

"It allows us to do all the work before you say, 'Hello,' Gomez said. "Everybody wants security, but you have to balance it all with efficiency and time delays."