WASHINGTON - New border-crossing rules that take effect in two weeks will mean longer lines and stiffer demands for positive ID, including for Americans returning to the U.S., Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday.
A driver's license won't be good enough to get you past a checkpoint at the Canadian border, Chertoff said. That will be a surprise to many people who routinely cross the border, but Chertoff bristled at criticism that such extra security would be inconvenient.
"It's time to grow up and recognize that if we're serious about this threat, we've got to take reasonable, measured but nevertheless determined steps to getting better security," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Thousands of people enter the U.S. through land crossings everyday. The biggest effect of the change will be at the Canadian border since it applies to both Canadians and Americans. Non-Americans coming in through Mexico already need extra documentation.
Congressional critics representing Northern border states were anything but impressed with Chertoff's rhetoric.
His department has proved incapable of implementing a 2004 law on border security, and Chertoff "frankly has as much credibility on telling people to 'grow up' as Geoffrey the Giraffe," said Rep. Tom Reynolds, a Buffalo-area Republican.
Added Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, "Secretary Chertoff's comments that those objecting to the plan need to 'grow up' indicates that the department still doesn't understand the practical effects of DHS policies on the everyday lives of border community residents."
Under the new system, which takes effect Jan. 31, Americans and Canadians who are 19 or older will have to present proof of citizenship when they seek to enter the United States through a land or sea port of entry. A passport will be fine. Or a birth certificate coupled with some other ID such as a driver's license.
Chertoff said he had been surprised to learn that simply stating "I am an American" and showing an ID card has been sufficient to get back into the country. "I don't think in this day and age we can afford the honor system for entering the United States," he said. "Regrettably, we live in a world in which people lie sometimes about their identity."
For people other than Americans or Canadians, the rules at the northern border will be unchanged - passports and visas will still be required. The same goes for non-Americans at the Mexican border.
Chertoff said longer lines at the border in the early days of the new policy are inevitable. "Until people get the message, there will be some delays," he said.
He predicted that would change once people got used to the new system, and he said border agents would be flexible in applying the new rules at the beginning.
Not moving to the new restrictions would be a tragic mistake, Chertoff said. "I can guarantee if we don't make this change, eventually there will come a time when someone will come across the border exploiting the vulnerabilities in the system and some bad stuff will happen. And then there'll be another 9/11 commission and we'll have people come saying 'Why didn't we do this?'"
More than 8,000 different documents have been used to enter the United States, in some cases even library cards. The proof-of-citizenship requirement will greatly reduce the ability to sneak by border agents with fake papers, Chertoff said. Border agents will now accept about two dozen types of ID.
Chertoff complained as recently as a year ago that checking birth certificates placed an "enormous burden" on agents because such documents come from thousands of jurisdictions and are hard to verify.
The Bush administration envisions an eventual passport requirement for everyone crossing the border into the United States. Congress passed a travel requirements law in 2004 but is having second thoughts, particularly as Northern-state lawmakers argue the passport requirement will hurt tourism and trade.
The law's requirements for air travelers in 2007 were followed by a massive backlog in passport applications, and some fear that will happen again this year as Homeland Security tries to go forward with the changes for land and sea crossings.
Also beginning in February, people can apply for a passport card that will be smaller than a regular passport but will include security features.
The 2004 law, passed in reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, is called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, designed to "get control" of the borders by verifying the citizenship and identity of everyone entering the U.S. by land, sea or air from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
In June, Chertoff delayed the law's passport requirement for land and sea crossings until next summer. Congress has since pushed it back even further to June 2009, and Chertoff has been forced to settle for birth certificates combined with other forms of ID as proof of citizenship.