Business leaders concerned over passport plan

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(Host) If you’re planning to travel to Canada next year, you must have a passport.

That’s the latest word from the Department of Homeland Security.

But business leaders in the state are concerned that the plan will have a negative impact on tourism and commerce between Vermont and Quebec.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) For several years, many of Vermont’s political and business leaders have tried to delay a provision of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that will require a passport to travel to and from Canada beginning on January 1st, 2008.

They have not been successful. Homeland Security spokesperson Russ Knocke says Vermonters need to understand that the rule is going into effect on schedule:

(Knocke) “We are going moving forward with implementation in January of 2008. There is really quite frankly a choice we can continue to delay and kick a can down the road and sit back and hope we get lucky that a bad guy does not exploit a potential vulnerability or we can take the steps now to strengthen security but do so in a way that makes sense for border residents.”

(Kinzel) Knocke argues that the passport requirement will help streamline the existing and often cumbersome system for border agents:

(Knocke) “You might find this surprising but there are roughly 8000 different documents that they have to distinguish between when making decisions about who gets in and who does not.”

(Kinzel) The Vermont Chamber of Commerce strongly opposes the passport rule. Curtis Picard is a trade specialist at the Chamber:

(Picard) “We think it’s going to have a serious impact our data shows that 1 out of 3 of Vermont’s day visitors are from north of the border. 30 to 35% of Canadians already have passports. The 60 to 70% that don’t have passports might think twice about coming down to Burlington to do some shopping or crossing the border.”

(Kinzel) Last year, Senator Patrick Leahy successfully sponsored a law that called for a 17-month delay of the rule unless Homeland Security could meet specific performance goals – there won’t be a delay because the Bush Administration says the goals have been met.

Leahy says he’ll now try to pass a bill that specifically delays the new passport rule.

(Leahy) “I think we’re going to have to explore more legislative steps on it these are the same people that talked about putting a wall along the Canadian border my god I wonder if any of them have ever visited Canada.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says he’s upset that Homeland Security officials don’t see a difference between the Mexican border and the Canadian border:

(Leahy) “It just makes no sense we have the largest unguarded border frontier in the world. We ought to celebrate that fact and not try to antagonize a wonderful country on our border.”

(Kinzel) Leahy plans to work with a group of senators from most of the northern border states to build support for his new bill.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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