Starting January 31, Americans who wish to re-enter the country from Mexico or Canada will no longer be able to simply produce a driver’s license and verbally announce their citizenship to cross the border. Stronger proof of citizenship will be required — in most cases, that means producing a passport or birth certificate.
However, in an interview with National Review Online’s Mark Hemingway, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff emphasized that while the new regulations may result in some temporary inconvenience, they are strictly necessary. The new rules will address the threat of terrorism, as well as the American people’s desire to see more border security to stem the tide of illegal immigration.
NRO: You said these new rules are put in place to prevent another 9/11 style attack. That’s obviously a pretty serious threat. What specific threats are we talking about?
Secretary Chertoff: More general than that. Obviously if you go back to 9/11 commission, the 9/11 commission identified one of the vulnerabilities that led to the attacks as insecure documentation, and phony documentation. Therefore, to the extent we’re in the process of tightening up the kinds of documents we’ll accept crossing the border, that is directly reducing the threat in terms of people sneaking across to carry out terrorist acts. Of course, you will remember there were some — the millennium bomber tried to cross at a land port of entry in Washington State coming in from Canada so it’s not merely a theoretical possibility.
But there is a more general issue. We are in the process of trying to secure the border in general, including securing the border against illegal immigrants. You could build a hundred fences between the ports of entry and if you open the port of entry to people who are coming in either making an oral declaration of citizenship — basically saying “I’m an American citizen, let me come in.” — or allowing them to use 8,000 different kinds of documents so you can’t tell what’s legitimate and what’s not legitimate, then for all intents and purposes you’re keeping the front door open while you’re building a fence between the doors. And that doesn’t make a lot of sense. So what we’re doing here is…furthering the process of tightening up on security on the ports of entry by eliminating so-called oral declarations, and also by significantly reducing the kinds of documents that will be accepted.
NRO: Any sort of idea about what these new regulations will cost?
Secretary Chertoff: It doesn’t cost a penny. The documents already exist. Now obviously, as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which Congress has delayed, we will ultimately be bringing new documents on-line which will also be acceptable. But right now under the new rules, if you have a driver’s license and a birth certificate, that’s going to be fine. What we’ll screen out is relying on things like your library card or your baptismal certificate, which will no longer be acceptable as proof of citizenship to come across the border.
NRO: Your baptismal certificate could get you across the border?
Secretary Chertoff: Yup! Up to now, that’s been the kind of document that has been presented at the border that’s been accepted.
NRO: I assume that means there’s a major problem with fraud?
Secretary Chertoff: Sure, and not knowing what’s legitimate — sometimes what that means is the agent spends more time questioning the person which slows the process up, but we don’t know, obviously, what people may get through. Not only that — there was a practice of allowing people when things got very busy to just be waved through by saying “I’m an American citizen.” You know, I don’t believe the honor system is appropriate at the border. So we’re basically ending that, except for extraordinary circumstances.
NRO: What are the Mexican and Canadian government reactions to the new regulations?
Secretary Chertoff: I haven’t heard a reaction from the Mexican government or the Canadian government. I can tell you some of our Members of Congress from the border areas are unhappy with this. I think I heard that Louise Slaughter, who is from Buffalo, doesn’t want us to do this. And I guess told one of the reporters she was going to try to sue me to stop it. I’ve got to tell you, to me it’s a no-brainer.
NRO: Are there implications for trade?
Secretary Chertoff: As people get [acclimated] to this, there may be a brief period in which people are delayed because they’re not going to know they can’t use their library card anymore. We’ll have to clarify the problem. It won’t stop anybody from traveling, in all likelihood, except people who should be stopped. But while people are transitioning, there may be a little delay and that’s why we’re trying to get the message out now — because the more we can communicate to people and message it up front, the less the wait is going to be and the more people will be prepared. And eventually this is going to speed things up.
NRO: How is this going to speed things up?
Secretary Chertoff: By having fewer documents…the agents won’t have to look at some of the documents and actually pore over them to…figure out if they’re legitimate, which means that the time that will be spent [on verification at the border] will be less per person.
Also, as we get more of these new identification documents such as the pass card which the State Department is going to issue or the enhanced driver’s licenses, these will actually have machine-readable features that will make it easier to input the information so that the actual processing time will be shortened. So in the long run, this actually makes things quicker. But like any transition, it does require people to pay a little bit of attention and do a little preparation.
NRO: How did the decision to enact these new regulations come about?
Secretary Chertoff: Originally a few years ago, Congress actually passed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in response to the 9/11 Commission recommendations. And that led, first of all, to our requiring passports to all air travelers in the Western Hemisphere and we did that last year. The next stage of that was supposed to be for January of this year. It was supposed to kick in that only documents that had certain security features would be accepted. For a variety of reasons, some of which are congressional — mandates that we delay — and some of which had to do with the process of getting new documentation out, it became evident to us that fully bringing WHTI into implementation in January was not going to be practical. It was going to have to get delayed.
So then the question arose, “Well, can’t we do something at least in the interim to make things better?” You know you may not get 100 percent of what you want, but can we at least get 80 percent while we’re waiting to get the implementation done? That’s why we looked at this system and said, “Look here are a couple items of low-hanging fruit we can take care of, we can use existing documents — it’s not a perfect solution but at least it eliminates kind of the worst vulnerabilities.”
NRO: What do you say to people who resist the plan?
Secretary Chertoff: You know there are people who, frankly, (some of them from the border areas) worr[y] that any additional security at the borders is going to affect their tourism. Here’s the bottom line: Even if somehow you didn’t think about terrorism or you think the risk is low, just take the issue of illegal immigration. I think the public has been pretty clear that they want to have secure borders.
Whether you believe in comprehensive reform or not, everybody seems to agree you have to have secure borders. How can you have secure borders — no matter how much fence you build — if you can walk right through the front door by simply smiling and saying “I’m an American,” or producing a library card? I mean, that’s an open invitation to people who are illegally coming into the country. Now sometimes our inspectors pick it up because they’re able to tell from eyeballing somebody or talking to somebody that there’s something suspicious. But why would we want to even have any chance that an illegal can masquerade as a citizen to come in? So to me the logic of this is compelling based upon the demand for secure borders both in terms of national security and in terms of immigration.