Every year, close to 900,000 vehicles cross the Canadian border between International Falls and Fort Frances, Ontario. Officials in both communities fear that number will plummet when federal border laws take effect in 2008.
The laws were in response to the September 11 Commission, which found that the current northern border rules were a major security vulnerability. International Falls Mayor Shawn Mason says border towns understand the security concerns. But Mason says requiring passports would make it too expensive for many tourists to make the cross-border trip.
"It certainly would extinguish some of it," said Mason. "And it would be a very, very sad day when that law would be implemented. And that's why we're trying to divert it."
Eighty percent of Americans don't have a passport. Right now, the document costs close to $100. That's a lot for a family of five planning a cross-border vacation. Passport applications take up to six weeks to process. Mason says that means spur-of-the-moment travel would come to a halt.
"A lot of travel is, 'Gee, it's Wednesday. It looks like it's going to be a great weekend up north,'" said Mason. "'Should we just get off work early on Friday and pop up and go up to Trout Lake in Ontario?' Well, if you're not prepared, you just simply cannot do that. I think we're really cutting off our foot by not thinking about these things."
Thousands of communities on both sides of the border are banding together to oppose the passport requirement. Many favor using something other than a passport as a travel document. One proposed alternative is a high-tech passport card issued by the federal government. It would cost half of what a passport does. An embedded microchip would contain information on identity and citizenship. Another proposed option would allow states to include such information in a secure driver's license.
Denelle Hovde, director of the Lake of the Woods tourism office in the border town of Baudette is part of a coalition of hundreds of border communities trying to delay implementation of the law. Hovde says the Canadian and U.S. governments need to find a way to secure the border without hurting cross-border commerce.
"We're just saying let's do the proper channels to get this correct so the impact won't be so severe on tourism," Hovde said. "... Our economic development would just come to a screaming halt if this was implemented."
Our economic development would just come to a screaming halt if this was implemented.Denelle Hovde, director of Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau
Trade and commerce between the U.S. and Canada is around a half-trillion dollars a year. In Minnesota alone, cross-border commerce is close to $12 billion annually. Canadian officials say that trade is important, but there's more than money at stake. Kim Butler, head of the Canadian consulate general's office in Minneapolis, says expensive passport requirements would be a hardship on local people living on the border.
Butler says International Falls and Fort Frances, Ontario are a good example. He says locals frequently cross the border to go shopping, to visit relatives or to participate in recreational activities. Fort Frances residents have to cross over to International Falls to go to a movie. Curlers in International Falls must cross the border to Fort Frances, which has the region's only curling rink.
"Fort Frances and International Falls are really a model community, where it's not only about trade crossing our borders, but friendships and neighbors," said Butler. "They're back and forth across the border every single day. And from our perspective, we want to insure that that is able to continue, and hopefully we'll take the time to get it right."
Butler says the Canadian government is working with the U.S. to secure the northern border. Canada is pushing for affordable alternatives to passports.
It appears likely the new travel requirements will be delayed. Last week, the Senate passed an amendment co-authored by Sen. Norm Coleman. It postpones the travel requirement until at least June of 2009.
The amendment creates a pilot program allowing states to develop secure driver's licenses that could be used to cross the border. It also requires an aggressive public education program to make sure travelers are made aware of the changes. The House is expected to consider a similar measure.