Passport requirement lacks rationale

What is the rationale for a program announced Tuesday to require U.S. citizens and residents who visit Mexico and Canada, beginning in 2008, to acquire U.S. passports and show them to border guards when they return? Quite frankly, we don’t think there is one. It resembles all too many of the vaunted airport “security” measures, designed to be a visible sign that the authorities are doing something, however ineffective it might be, to fight terrorism.
But it will impose noticeable inconvenience and expense on the 16.8 million U.S. tourists who make short trips to Mexico and the 16.2 million who make trips to Canada each year. The cost of a passport — $97, $82 for people under 16 — is not overwhelming, but it is not insignificant either. For a large family — the Homeland Security proposal will require children to have passports, too — it could be quite expensive.
For as long as anyone can remember, the United States, Mexico and Canada have had a common-sense border policy: U.S. citizens haven’t been required to get visas or show passports to enter Mexico or Canada, and upon returning they have simply been asked to show a driver’s license. This system has contributed to friendly relations among the three countries, made visiting Mexico or Canada relatively hassle-free for Americans and facilitated tourism and commerce across the borders.
Is changing that system and burdening American travelers with new costs and delays worth it?
You might make the case if there were good evidence that numbers of terrorists have been regularly passing through normal border-crossing checkpoints or that it would be difficult for a determined terrorist to acquire a forged passport. But neither of those claims is demonstrated or even claimed by supporters of the passport requirement, which thus seems like a costly “solution” in search of a problem.
Was this move mandated by Congress? That depends on how you look at it. During debate on the recent intelligence reform bill, several Republicans held it up by demanding that it include something about tightening up our porous borders. They inserted authorization for more Border Patrol agents and included a phrase about requiring a “passport or other document” to enter the United States.
Did they mean U.S. tourists on short trips to Mexico or Canada? That’s how the Department of Homeland Security has interpreted it.
Rep. Chris Cox of Newport Beach, Calif., who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, has said that requiring a passport might not be the way to go, that fingerprints might be better.
“What you want is a system that … checks and verifies each person is who they say they are but doesn’t slow down entry and exit from the country,” Rep. Cox told an Orange County (Calif.) Register reporter. “Any proposal to substitute one paper document for another doesn’t accomplish that.” His committee plans to hold hearings on the proposal, and you can comment at:
www.gpoaccess.gov/fr
The committee would do well to tell Homeland Security bureaucrats that the passport requirement looks more like a classic case of using a generalized threat to impose more government mandates, costs and inconvenience on innocent citizens.