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Passport or no passport?

PLATTSBURGH Requirements for traveling across the border will soon change, though officials say there is no cause to panic. In an informational meeting hosted by the Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Commerce Jan. 18, representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and the office of the U.S. Consulate General in Montreal, Quebec, gave an overview of changes being made to the way travelers are allowed into the United States beginning this Thursday, Jan. 31. Chief Inspector Michael McMullen, with the Department of Homeland Securitys division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, stated an oral declaration of citizenship and identity from U.S. and Canadian citizens ages 19 and older will no longer be accepted effective Jan. 31. While passports are not presently required under the latest phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, travelers will be required to present documentation of their citizenship and identity. Acceptable forms of documentation, said Mr. McMullen, come in various forms. The single document option includes a Native American Tribal Photo Identification Card, Form I-872 American Indian Card, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Card, U.S. Merchant Mariner document, U.S. Military identification with military travel orders or a U.S. or Canadian passport. Pre-authorized traveler cards such as NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST cards, will continue to be accepted, said Mr. McMullen. A U.S. passport card would also be an acceptable form of identification, said Mr. McMullen, when such a document becomes available. According to Consul General Mary B. Marshall, of the office of the U.S. Consulate General, Montreal, applications will be accepted for the U.S. passport card beginning Friday, Feb. 1. The card will grant its owner the same privileges as that of an actual passport, though will look entirely different and will not be applicable toward air or marine travel. The passport card is identical to a passport with the exception of instead of it being a booklet, it will be a card that can fit in your wallet and it is good for land travel only, said Ms. Marshall. You cannot use it if you want to fly from New York to Toronto, for example. The card, which will vary in price, may likely be favored over a traditional U.S. passport, said Ms. Marshall, mainly for those who wish to simply cross back and forth across the border by vehicle. There are a lot of people who live within 15 miles of the border, particularly on the Canadian side, who may never want to go by air anywhere anyway, added Ms. Marshall, but would want to come into the U.S. and the same thing on the U.S. side. First-time adult applicants who have never held a U.S. passport book will be charged $45, while children who have never held a passport will be charged $35. Renewals for those who have held passports would be $20. The cards will be valid for adults and children for 10 and five years, respectively, and be issued as early as this April, said Ms. Marshall. A state- or provincial-issued enhanced drivers license and enhanced tribal cards, would also be acceptable, when such document come to exist, said Mr. McMullen. New York State enhanced drivers licenses could be available as early as this December. Travelers who have none of the aforementioned documents may also choose a two document option for crossing into the U.S. One document must consist of government-issued identification, which possesses a photo, name and date of birth, while the other must prove citizenship. Identification documents include a drivers license or identification card issued by a federal, state, provincial, county, territory, or municipal authority or a U.S. or Canadian military identification card. Citizenship documents include a U.S. or Canadian birth certificate issued by a federal, state, provincial, county, territory or municipal authority; U.S. Consular report of birth abroad; U.S. Certificate of Naturalization; U.S. Certificate of Citizenship; U.S. Citizen Identification Card; Canadian Citizenship Card; and Canadian certificate of citizenship, without a photo. According to information distributed at the meeting, children ages 18 and younger will only be required to present proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate. All existing nonimmigrant visa and passport requirements will remain in effect, the information stated, and will not be altered by the changes implemented next week. However, full implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, commonly referred to as WHTI, is scheduled for as early as June 1, 2009. At that time, Americans will be required to carry a passport or other form of single document proof of citizenship and identity, said Mr. McMullen. That requirement concerns local officials like Assemblywoman Teresa R. Sayward, R-Willsboro, who was in attendance for the meeting last week. Our economy here in the North Country, depends on travel back and forth between Canada and the United States, said Assemblywoman Sayward. Many of our businesses here in the Plattsburgh-North Country area depend on that exchange. Many of the cultural events North Country residents attend are across the border in Canada, the assemblywoman continued. Additional restrictions placed upon U.S. citizens traveling to Canada and back could ultimately mean the difference between traveling at all or staying at home, she said. As a member of the state Assemblys Children and Families Committee and the mother of a daughter who has five children of her own, the assemblywoman said the possibility children would also require citizenship verification down the road such as a passport card, would make it economically difficult for larger families to accomplish. We have a lot of communities with a lot of people who are making low amounts of money and I dont want to prevent them from being able to have the same opportunities to have those cultural experiences, said Assemblywoman Sayward. Since the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, many travelers have understood the need for increase security when traveling in and out of the country, said Mr. McMullen. In a recent survey at the Champlain Port of Entry, 79 percent of Canadians and 78 percent of Americans checked had passports, which Mr. McMullen considers a high percentage. The additional requirements placed on international travelers during the WHTI implementation phase next week should not affect someones plans to travel, he said. We dont anticipate any change in wait times here in the North Country, said Mr. McMullen. We have managed this operation to minimize wait times adding lanes, having staff available, especially during the high frequency times such as tourist seasons. One of the goals of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the next phase is to educate the traveling public about documentary requirements under WHTI. During this next phase, we will not be turning away travelers just because they do not have the proper documentation under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, said Mr. McMullen, but provide them with information on what they will need and where to get additional information. The bottom line? People should not panic, said Ms. Marshall. For more information about the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, log on to the U.S. Department of State Web site at www.travel.state.gov or the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Web site at www.cbp.gov , or call the U.S. National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778.

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