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U.S. Border Guards Set to Demand Passports

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

We begin our program with a look at some policies being debated on Capitol Hill, starting with a new policy on the nation's borders. Starting today, Americans crossing the border from Canada or Mexico will no longer be allowed to simply declare themselves U.S. citizens.

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The Homeland Security Department says it wants to see a passport or other proof of citizenship. But it also says it will be flexible until people get used to the new rules. Critics are predicting confusion and delays at the border.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: People might be surprised to learn that until now, Americans have been able to cross the border if a Customs officer believe them when they simply declare that they're an American. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says he was certainly surprised.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): This is at the same time that the public is demanding that we secure the border, that we build fencing between the ports of entry. It strikes me as a little anomalous to say we're going to build a fence between the ports of entry, but you can just walk right through the port of entry by saying, Hi, I'm an American citizen.

FESSLER: So beginning today, that, at least technically, is no longer the case. Those crossing by lands from Canada and Mexico are supposed to show either a passport or a government-issued photo I.D. with some proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.

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But the change faces intense opposition from border state lawmakers and businesses, and Homeland Security has been softening its stance. Officials say no one will be stopped just because they don't have the right documents. They'll be given a warning and could face delays as Customs officers try to verify their identity.

Here is Jayson Ahern, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, earlier this week in San Diego.

Mr. JAYSON AHERN (Deputy Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection): This is not going to be come January 31 that we're going to end U.S. citizen's ability to return back to their homeland. We can't do that. We don't have the authority to do that, but we have to make sure as far as individuals satisfy the officers' determination that you are a citizen of this country and they are who they say they are.

FESSLER: Homeland security officials say they're trying to prepare people for the summer of 2009 when everyone will be required to show a passport.

But Roger Dow, head of the Travel Industry Association, thinks this interim step is just confusing, and that requiring a birth certificate will do more harm than good.

Mr. ROGER DOW (President and Chief Executive Officer, Travel Industry Association): My daughter on her Mac could create a document that's much more official-looking than the birth certificates we have in the United States from hundreds of thousands of hospitals over the years. So there's no way to even tell if a birth certificate is a good document. They are not secure documents.

FESSLER: His biggest fear is that the change will only discourage cross-border travel and trade.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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