Prisoners of our passports

by Charlie Leocha on January 26, 2007

This week, three out of four Americans became prisoners in their own country. As of Tuesday, January 23, U.S. citizens may no longer fly to Bermuda, Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America or the Caribbean — unless they have a passport. Nor can they fly home without a passport. Every U.S. citizen will have to present a passport when entering their own country by air — even infants and children.

Your birth certificate, driver’s license, official government I.D., Social Security card, naturalization certificate, citizenship papers or letter from your senator or congressman won’t do. You will all need a passport to leave your country or to enter it by air. Without it, the airlines, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security will not allow you to leave.

I have mixed feelings about this. I am a traveler. I understand the need for passports when crossing oceans and visiting strange lands. A passport is also very useful when I find myself in trouble abroad. But — and this is a big but — I have the uneasy feeling that if we continue down this road, my ability to drive along the Canadian border, to shop in Canada, to visit friends, to dine on semi-French cuisine will be soon be changed forever.

While tens of thousands of illegal aliens are streaming across the Mexican border and our representatives in Washington refuse to do anything about it, this band-aid solution — which affects only law-abiding citizens — strikes me as ridiculous. It doesn’t make me feel any freer. It doesn’t make me feel any more protected. It only adds another level of hassle to my travels close to home.

Canada has strict immigration laws and border controls. Its requirements for travelers coming from overseas should be more than adequate to protect us; indeed, they have been for years. It makes no sense to set up new controls between historically peaceful neighbors, especially when they are the world’s two largest trading partners.

Adding to the foolishness is the all-but-incomprehensible footnote that these border controls will apply only to citizens arriving and departing by air. All border crossings by automobile, bus, motor scooter, bicycle, wagon, ship, rubber raft, water wings or on foot are currently excluded from the new measures, and will not come under consideration until, it appears, June 2009.

How brainless is this? No offense to our dedicated civil servants, but take a look at these rules. Do they make any sense? Do they protect us in any way? Or is this just one more bureaucratic hassle?

Please. Someone — anyone — explain this to me and to the American people.

Hello! Senators and congressmen! When you get serious about border control for everyone, let us know. In the meantime, don’t impose unnecessary measures on those of us who operate within the laws of our country.

Notes:

* The new requirement is part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which was developed jointly by the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security in compliance with the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which Congress passed after considering the recommendations made by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (“the 9-11 Commission”).

* It can take six to 10 weeks to get a passport.

* Passports cost $97 for citizens 16 and older, and $82 for those under 16; renewing a passport costs $67 and $82, respectively, for those age categories.

* Expediting a passport service adds $60 to the bill, but don’t wait too long; “rush” services are being limited by some passport agencies, according to The New York Times.

* Passports can be renewed by mail under most circumstances.

* Passports for citizens 16 and older are valid for 10 years; children’s passports are valid for five years.

* U.S. citizens traveling to or returning from a U.S. territory will not need a passport (because, technically, they will not have left the United States); U.S. territories include Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Swains Island and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

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