Chamber working for changes in WHTI

Recent lobbying trip to the nation’s capital paying dividends

Canadian shoppers and visitors crowd the border crossing on a recent weekend, a sight which local chamber officials fear could be in short supply once legislation requiring passports to cross the border is enacted in 2008. Below is a prophetic inscription from the Peace Arch.

   Although the roll-out implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which could potentially require a passport to enter the United States, won’t affect travelers entering sea-and air-ports from Mexico and Canada until next year, followed by land borders starting in 2008, a national coalition of businesses and associations, including Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Ken Oplinger are working to change the law’s implementation plans.
   The group is trying to spread their message — regarding the potentially ill economic effects of a passport requirement at the border — both in the nation’s capital and here locally in an attempt to maintain security using a different secure document, while preserving convenient border crossings and the economic benefits associated with border.
   “The WHTI as it is currently written and being implemented is going to cause substantial social and economic problems along the northern border — and we need to address it,” said Oplinger.
   This February, Oplinger traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of a coalition of businesses and associations headed by chambers of commerce from Buffalo, N.Y., Detroit, Mich., and Bellingham to talk with those involved. The group is concerned that requiring a passport, which costs $97 and takes about six weeks to issue, is too costly and complicated and will deter those wanting to cross the border — and damage both country’s economies. During the trip, the group took its message to more than 200 congressional offices, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security.
   Reflecting on the trip, Oplinger thinks the group’s message was received well, with many members of congress behind their efforts.
   “If you show that a large number of people are affected, then you get noticed. Strength in numbers in Washington, D.C., is important,” said Luke Rich, a consultant and lobbyist working with Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce in Buffalo. He said a group needs to have enough weight and clout across the nation when dealing with national agencies and lawmakers.
   Although the coalition has been to Washington before, Oplinger said, some lawmakers, mostly in southern states, don’t know that much about WHTI. He said southern states need to realize they are economic stakeholders also, as Canadian tourists contribute to economies in the Sun Belt, Florida, Nevada and California.
   “The biggest problem we are having is that most members of Congress are reticent to do anything that might make them look weak on terrorism issues,” said Oplinger. He said that the coalition’s response to those concerns has been that security concerns can be addressed without going causing harm to the economy.
   WHTI was passed in 2004 as part of a broad intelligence reform designed to address security concerns brought forward after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The law will require anyone entering the United States from Mexico or Canada to have a passport or other secure document by 2007, if traveling by air or sea and by 2008, if crossing a land border. The Department of Homeland Security and Department of State have been assigned to implement the program and determine if an alternative document to the passport can fulfill WHTI’s requirements.
   According to Oplinger, the coalition is looking to avoid a passport requirement and fulfill the requirements of WHTI by adding to the existing Real ID law, which is to be implemented in May 2008, (four months after WHTI goes into effect at land borders) and will create a federal standards for state issued-driver’s licenses.
   A hurdle in satisfying WHTI requirements is that the new driver’s licenses to be issued by Real ID must have someone’s nationality included, he said. Within this requirement, Oplinger said there are two sticking points. He said the Department of State contends — and rightfully so — that that disclosure of someone’s nationality is the sovereign right of the federal government. Also, the disclosure of nationality on a driver’s license raises a debate about civil rights.
   Oplinger thinks the coalition has addressed both points. He said that state governments are actually already determining someone’s citizenship when issuing driver’s licenses and when businesses hire a new employee; doing this for the proposed new licenses would be an extension of those accepted practices. As for those concerned with civil rights, he said, someone applying for one of the proposed driver’s licenses could choose if they want to disclose their nationality on the card.
   The solution proposed by the coalition only solves half the international equation in avoiding passport-free travel, because a passport alternative in United States helps citizens from this country only.
   As for Canadian efforts to react to U.S. policy, Oplinger said that the coalition has taken on Canadians and worked with their embassy, but not a whole lot can be done until the details of WHTI implementation are decided on. He said, however, that the coalition’s proposed driver’s licenses probably have a better chance of Canadian reciprocity than the PASS card program unveiled by the federal government earlier this year, which costs $55, takes the same amount of time to issue as a passport and is available only to Americans. He added that a group of driver’s license authorities in Michigan, New York and Ontario are already working on licenses to meet WHTI standards, and that if Ontario conforms to a WHTI accepted document, the rest of Canada will probably follow, as the bulk of Canada’s population is in that province.
   Accomplishing the coalition’s goals will not likely happen before the WHTI is scheduled to be implemented, according to Oplinger, as the procedures of the federal government don’t move quickly. An attempt to delay implementation of the WHTI looks probable, he said.
   Although using an alternative secure document instead of a passport is an option written into the WHTI’s requirements, which are to be implemented by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, delaying implementation will take an act of Congress.
   One route the coalition is attempting to take is to delay the process through the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Oplinger said the projected economic impact of the WHTI could make the initiative eligible for a mandatory economic review, as required by an executive order from 1994. He said a review of this type could potentially take 18 months, and would have to be done before implementing the WHTI, thus delaying it.
   Any action by Congress will probably push the deadline of the WHTI, said Oplinger. In the meantime, he said, the coalition will continue to work with Congress and the federal government, and begin raising more awareness about the issue locally.
   Drew Schmidt, owner of Victoria San Juan Cruises, who has been working with the coalition, said although the message is getting to Washington, D.C., it is not being projected with enough vigor locally. He said most people near the border have passports and may not realize what a passport requirement would do to the local economy.
   Schmidt, who runs cruises to the San Juan Islands and to Victoria, B.C., said he has already seen a drop in international business — about 20 percent last year — which he attributes to confusion about border requirements. He said there was a survey done among customers that indicated many would not choose to travel to Canada if a passport is required.
nbsp;  Of his customers, Schmidt said about 95 percent are American and come to Bellingham to go on the cruise. He said he is most concerned about the many travelers from around the country who don’t make plans in advance. “If they don’t want to go to Victoria, there is a good chance they won’t come to Bellingham.”
   Although travel-document confusion has not been a noticeable issue keeping Canadian shoppers from Bellis Fair mall, its marketing manager, Cara Buckingham, said she is keeping an eye on the WHTI.
   According to Buckingham, more than 20 percent of Bellis Fair’s shoppers are Canadian. She said that, of any one factor drawing Canadian shoppers across the border, the strength of the Canadian dollar is most important. She did not want to speculate what kind of effect a passport requirement would have on retail business, but said people need to be educated about whatever solution is chosen.
   “I hope an alternative is found that is affordable and easy to access for consumers,” she said.


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