Canadians and U.S. border-state officials are concerned that new rules requiring passports for Americans and other travelers entering the United States will hurt commerce and tourism.
Starting next Tuesday, air travelers who are citizens of Canada, Mexico and Bermuda, as well as U.S. citizens returning home, must with few exceptions display passports to enter the United States.
The rule brings them under the same rules that apply to all other travelers.
Canadian Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day has made it clear that Canada considers this first phase, affecting only air travelers, to be reasonable. However, Canada is worried that rules about land and sea, which will take effect sometime between January 2008 and June 2009, could clog land borders and disrupt trade.
"We need to ensure that we do not build walls between us," Canadian officials recently wrote. Day and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff plan to meet Thursday.
Senators Patrick Leahy and Ted Stevens, whose states border Canada, pushed through legislation last year to postpone implementation of the land and sea phase of the law until alternatives can be developed.
Until now, citizens usually needed to display little more than a birth certificate or driver's license to cross U.S. borders.
The new rules were mandated by Congress in 2004 following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and were recommended by the 9/11 Commission.
The only acceptable alternatives to the official passport will be a document carried by U.S. merchant mariners; the NEXUS Air card issued to some U.S. and Canadian frequent travelers; and proof of active duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Homeland Security Department spokesman Jarrod Agen said department officials have been meeting with Canadians and border community officials to determine how best to provide some flexibility to the law's requirements.
Agen said a so-called PASS Card has been discussed as a cheaper and more convenient alternative to the passport. The card would be about the size of a credit card and cost about $20 (Ђ15), but it would not replace the passport for travel to most of the world.
There are 70,000 Canadians who spend their winters in the United States, mostly in Florida, and concern has been expressed that some may have arrived without their passports.
A Homeland Security official told reporters Tuesday that Customs and Border Protection officers have been given guidance to use a "phased approach" and their own discretion.
Robert Jacksta, head of traveler security and facilitation, said 98 percent of people flying out of the U.S. have the proper documentation, adding that "for the most part people are in compliance because of the requirements of other governments."
Officials told reporters their agencies have seen the percentage of travelers holding passports steadily increasing. Last week that compliance rate had reached 96 percent for Canadians, 99 percent for Mexican travelers, and about 90 percent for returning U.S. citizens, reports AP.
Currently about 73 million Americans, less than 70 percent of the U.S. population, hold valid passports. The cost of a new passport for an adult is $97, (Ђ75) and for children $82 (Ђ63).
The new rules do not apply to U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Tourism officials from those locations expect more business from U.S. vacationers who do not want to bother with a passport.
In other Caribbean nations, fears of economic damage have led to advertising campaigns encouraging Americans to sign up for passports, and in some cases granting discounts to those who hold them.