Border crossing

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(HOST) Commentator Tim McQuiston is concerned that attempts to address security issues along Vermont’s common border with Canada may have some unintended – and unfortunate – consequences.

(MCQUISTON) Most Vermonters I know have a favorite “crossing the border into Canada” story. Some are pretty funny, like several years ago my friend had to wake up the border patrol guard at one of the quieter crossings between Vermont and Quebec. But since 9/11 and tighter security, others aren’t so funny.

Last summer my family and I were crossing at Interstate 89 and we didn’t have birth certificates for the younger kids. We had never needed them before. But it took us an hour to get through the red tape. Another family wasn’t so lucky. They had with them a family friend who was a minor without a birth certificate. They were there when we got there and they were still there when we left.

And that was on the Canadian side. When I asked the very nice Canadian customs officer if we would all need passports soon just to cross into Canada, he said, “It depends on what they do down there.”

“Down there”, of course, is Washington, DC. The Canadians are not driving this new process. The US anti-terrorism law of 2004 included the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative or WHTI. This impending law alarms travel and tourism officials along the US-Canadian border, for pretty obvious reasons.

Most of those who cross are doing it for pleasure. Needless to say, if it’s no fun to cross, people will do it less. Since 9/11, border crossings are down.

Of course, there are real national security concerns. The most notorious 9/11 terrorist crossed into Maine from Canada. But even there he did so legally, and the new regulations probably would not have stopped him.

Beginning in January 2008, travelers will be required to show a valid passport or other secure documentation to enter or re-enter the United States. Chambers of commerce and other tourism officials all along the fifty-five hundred miles of the Canadian border have been working their congressmen hard to ease the requirements. They have formed a group called Business for Economic Security Tourism and Trade or BESTT.

Senator Leahy has offered an amendment to put off implementation of WHTI until June 2009. This would give more time to change the legislation to at least make it easier and cheaper. And by then we’ll have a new president.

While requiring a passport for every man, woman and child will certainly reduce cross-border tourism all along the Canadian border, it will also reduce commerce and economic development. According to national statistics, one point two billion dollars cross the border every day.

Canada and Vermont have always had a great cultural and commercial relationship. The tighter border requirements since 9/11 have strained that relationship. The WHTI as written will strain it even further. We don’t need that.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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