Business, political leaders stress importance of delaying passport plan

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(Host) Vermont business and political leaders say it’s more critical than ever to have the Bush Administration delay a plan to require passports to travel to and from Canada by car beginning in January.

They argue that the current massive backlog of passports applications will be much worse in the coming months – a situation that could seriously affect travel and tourism between Vermont and Quebec.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The plan to require passports to travel to and from Canada is being implemented in two stages. On January first of this year, anyone traveling by air into the country had to have a passport – then next January, anyone entering by car will have to have one.

Last week the Department of Homeland Security announced new temporary rules because of a massive backlog of passport applications.

Curtis Picard has been tracking this issue for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce for several years. Given the chaotic start to the program, he’s stunned that Homeland Security isn’t supporting a new law that calls for a 17 month delay of the passport requirement:

(Picard) “It’s boggling to me that the Department of Homeland Security isn’t taking what we consider a common sense approach. The Congress has given Homeland Security extra time and has said all along if we’re going to do this, and we’re all in favor of doing something, nobody wants to jeopardize security between our two countries or security of the United States but whatever we’re going do let’s make sure we do it right.”

(Kinzel) Senator Patrick Leahy is cosponsoring a new effort to delay the passport initiative. Leahy says he’s very concerned that recent problems are just a small example of what will happen in January.

(Leahy) “They’re not doing anything to improve our security. They are almost guaranteeing tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in the United States, hundreds of billions of dollars worth of commerce will be lost. We get no safety for it. It is hard for me to remember any greater show of incompetence of any administration republican or democratic since I’ve been here.”

(Kinzel) Homeland Security spokesperson Russ Knocke says the inconvenience of delayed passports pales in comparison to the need to secure the northern border. He says the January 1st deadline remains firm to prevent terrorists from entering the country:

(Knocke) “In that scenario, god forbid, that there were ever to be a circumstance like that, there’s not going to be debate about whether there should be secure ids accepted at the border. There’s not going to be debate about whether passports should be part of the equation at the border. In many respects you might see the border shut down. If, god forbid, that circumstance were to ever occur and imagine the economic impact on local businesses in that circumstance.”

(Kinzel) The state of Washington is conducting a pilot program using an enhanced driver’s license in place of a passport. The Vermont Chamber of Commerce is intrigued by this initiative and it hopes the Bush Administration will delay its passport plan until this pilot program has been tested.

Homeland Security says that’s not going to happen.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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