Yukoners must lobby to ensure a 17-month delay in requiring passports or other high-security documents for border crossing goes on the books, said Economic Development minister Jim Kenyon.
“We have to convince US legislators that more time is needed to iron out the kinks on both sides of the border before the new regulations are put in place,” said Kenyon on Tuesday.
On May 17th, the US Senate approved a bill amendment, presented by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, to postpone the enforcement of a US law requiring travellers to have a passport or another yet-to-be-defined “pass card,” to get through the US border from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean.
If the delay does not go through, driver’s licences and birth certificates will no longer be sufficient for those arriving by air and sea starting January 1st, 2007 and for land border crossing January 1st, 2008.
The new proposed deadline is June 1st, 2009.
The law — known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative — was passed by US Congress in 2004 in a response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The concern is neither Canadians nor Americans will have enough time to prepare for major disruptions in tourism and commerce due to the crackdown, said Kenyon.
The proposed delay is critical because it will give both countries more time to upgrade border-crossing infrastructure to avoid gridlock, and develop an affordable and secure alternative to passports.
Only 20 per cent of Americans have passports, which cost $97 US and take six to eight weeks to process.
Tourism in the Yukon would suffer, but it will affect trade as well, “right down to the cost of produce from Southern California,” said Kenyon.
“If a truck has to spend an extra three hours getting through the border and has to incur a certain amount of expense for that, then it’s going to reflect in the price of lettuce,” he said.
The US Homeland Security department has been proposing the introduction of a “pass card,” similar in size of a driver’s licence, that is intended to provide an inexpensive, secure alternative to a traditional passport.
This could cost as low as $50 US, said Kenyon.
But despite the looming deadline, the US government has yet to agree on the card’s technical requirements for the card.
Thursday, the US Senate approved amendments from senators from North Dakota and Minnesota that would cap the cost for new passport cards at $24 US and give free cards to children under 18.
They would also create a system of free passes for last-minute trips shorter than 72 hours and make exceptions to the passport requirements for supervised groups of children, such as athletic teams or church groups.
“The new amendments are a result of the work of a lot of the representatives along the border states who really pushed for this,” said Marissa Maurer, US consulate officer responsible for British Columbia and the Yukon.
“But this is just the first step in the process,” she said.
The Senate’s amended legislation must still be negotiated between the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Once a compromise has been reached, the full immigration bill must go back to Congress for another vote.
If it passes, it must be approved by the president, who still has the power to veto it.
“It still has a long way to go, and there is no guarantee that it will become law,” said Maurer.
That is why the lobbying process is so important says Kenyon.
Kenyon is also the Canadian vice-president of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, the largest cross-border economic lobby group.
It consists of legislators and members of the private sector from eight American states and Canadian provinces in the northwest region, including the Yukon.
They have been lobbying for months to get the new rules delayed.
Two weeks ago, Kenyon had a chance to meet directly with federal ministers in Ottawa with the group, including minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day, to discuss the issue. Before that, they were in Washington DC.
This week, Yukon’s Health and Social Services minister Brad Cathers is attending a meeting of western and territorial premiers in Gimli, Manitoba, where the new border-crossing legislation is a hot topic.
“I’ve gone over it with Brad quite a bit, so he’s pretty familiar with it,” said Kenyon. “We’ll see where that goes.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will be meeting Cathers and the other premiers for dinner tonight, told the Globe and Mail he thinks the delay will go through because the Americans are realizing how ill-prepared they are to adapt as the deadline approaches.
The premiers called on Harper to push the issue with Bush when they meet in Washington on July 6.
While there hasn’t been a noticeable drop in travellers to the Yukon yet, revenue loss has been recorded at other border crossings across the country.
The ferry from the Port at Southworth, Washington, to Victoria had already seen a $27-million decrease in revenue, said Kenyon.
This is because travellers are confused about the new regulations and have decided to stay at home.
“The summer is where we’re going to see how this effects the Yukon,” said Kenyon.
“The tourism part is going to be a biggy.”