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Leaving U.S.? Passport may be needed to get back in

Gannett News Service | April 6, 2005
By Sergio Bustos

WASHINGTON - It won't matter if you're a college student looking to party in Puerto Peñasco for spring break or a tourist shopping for inexpensive prescription drugs in Nogales, the Bush administration wants U.S. citizens traveling to Mexico to have a passport to return home.
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The proposed passport requirements, unveiled Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security, would be phased in by the end of 2007 and would apply to U.S. citizens visiting Canada, Bermuda and the rest of the Americas. Canadians and most Mexicans would be required to produce a passport to enter the United States.

The measures, officials said, are part of the federal government's strategy to further secure the nation's borders after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a move that could be felt most in Southwestern and Northern border communities.

The administration's goal is to make it easier for U.S. citizens and legitimate foreign visitors to enter the United States, said Randy Beardsworth, a top Homeland Security official.

"By ensuring that travelers possess secure documents, such as the passport, Homeland Security will be able to conduct more effective and efficient interviews at our borders," he said.

Dubbed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the proposed changes would begin at the end of this year. The administration is seeking public comment over the next several months before finalizing the regulations.

Some people interviewed Tuesday said they were concerned about the hassle of obtaining a passport, while others worried that tourism might suffer.

Garrick Taylor, a spokesman with the Border Trade Alliance, a group representing businesses in Canada, the United States and Mexico, said he worries people won't be aware of the passport requirements.

"You can imagine, for example, a college student making his or her way down to Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco) only to find out a passport is now required for what was once a routine trip," he said. "Winter visitors in Yuma County who might patronize pharmacies on the Mexican side of the border now will have to secure passports. The question is: Will those visitors take the time to get passports, and will the State Department be able to meet the demand?"

Glenna Fulton, 75, and her husband, Don, typically go to Algodones, Mexico, every year to pick up prescription medication at discounted prices. Usually, the couple from Sun City West just carry their driver's licenses, she said, because neither has a passport.

Border inspectors generally ask if they are U.S. citizens and let them pass through the port of entry; sometimes they scan the licenses.

Fulton said if the requirement would improve national security, she likely would support it. But, she added, "it's going to be a hardship on people who generally don't have passports."

Business owners along the Arizona-Mexico border, especially those in Mexico, expressed concern about the proposed new travel rules.

"That will hurt our business," predicted Eli Ibarra, manager for Cyndi's Beach Home Rental in Puerto Peñasco. The business rents about 400 condominiums to visitors from Phoenix and Tucson who come to spend a weekend at the beach on the western Mexico coast. The beach resort is about four hours from Arizona.

"We get a lot of young people here, especially for spring break," Ibarra said. "A lot of them probably don't even have passports."

Arizona State University student Jesse Hernandez, 25, of Mesa, agreed.

Last year, Hernandez traveled to Puerto Peñasco and Tijuana for spring break with friends. He said he doubts he would have gone if he had to have a passport.

"It's a big hassle that college students won't want to bother with," Hernandez said.

Although Bush administration officials have chosen the passport as the most acceptable identification document for U.S. and foreign travelers, they suggested they would be willing to accept alternate documents that verified a traveler's citizenship and identity.

Under current travel rules, Americans visiting Mexico or Canada can present a wide variety of documents, including birth certificates and voter registration cards, upon re- entering the United States. They even can verbally claim U.S. citizenship to immigration authorities.

Canadians who want to visit the United States are not required to have a passport.

Most Mexicans visiting the United States must show a passport with a U.S.-approved visa, but the administration wants to exempt an estimated 6 million Mexican citizens who have border crossing cards, or laser visas, from the passport requirement. These cardholders are allowed to visit the U.S. border region for 72 hours.

In Arizona, no exact figures were available on the number of residents who visit Mexico annually, but it is believed to be in the tens of thousands.

Last year, more than 100 million people, most of them Americans, visited Mexico and spent about $10.8 billion, according to the federal Tourism Secretariat. About 72 million crossed the border for day trips and an additional 7 million arrived by cruise ship.

In Arizona, Mexicans and Canadians represent the largest number of foreign visitors to the state, according to the state Office of Tourism.

The latest figures show that an estimated 68,000 Mexican citizens visited Arizona in 2003, but the figure does not include the millions of Mexicans who regularly shop, work and visit family within the border region, said Jacki Mieler, a Tourism Office spokeswoman.

"There is no current way to calculate the number of Mexican visitors because there are so many," she said.

More than 299,000 visitors came from Canada that year, but the figure does not include tens of thousands of snowbirds who stayed in the state for more than 30 days, Mieler said.

In Mexico City's Zona Rosa tourist district on Tuesday, vendor Marco Antonio Velasco Salas, 41, reacted to the proposed new rules, saying, "It's a burden to have to carry around a passport all the time."

"The United States government keeps talking about insecurity, and eventually it will affect the number of people who come down here, because it's just one more thing encouraging people (Americans) not to leave their country," Salas said.

"Look at September 11. That really hurt us down here. Americans don't want to leave their country anymore. This is just one more problem for them."

Marco Lopez, executive director of the Arizona-Mexico Commission, said that if the passport changes are adopted, Arizona will ask the federal government to spend more money to open more offices and hire people to process passport applications in the state.

State officials also will ask the federal government to consider creating one-day passes for people already in the United States who want to visit Mexico and return the same day, he said.

 

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