A written warning and a wag of the finger greeted travellers arriving at the Canada-U.S. border without a passport Monday as a long-dreaded American effort to buttress national security began with neither fanfare nor strict enforcement.
It marked a soft launch of sorts for the latest phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, an American endeavour to shore up homeland security by requiring everyone entering the country – including U.S. citizens – to produce a passport at the border.
Anticipated travel delays failed to materialize amid scant traffic moving in either direction, a high degree of awareness about the requirement on the Canadian side of the border and the willingness of U.S. border guards to give non-compliant travellers a pass – for now.
Kevin Corsaroan, chief customs and border protective officer on the U.S. side of the Peace Bridge, said officials all along both the Canada-U.S. and U.S.-Mexico borders were in “informed compliance” mode and likely would be for some months yet.
“If you cross anywhere within the United States, whether it’s on the northern border or the southern border, we’re applying this informed compliance phase,” Corsaroan said.
“We don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon – we believe it’s going to go on throughout the summer. We’re waiting for further guidance from the department on that.”
Jessica Whitaker, a 20-year-old traveller from London, Ont., was bracing for the worst as she waited to enter the U.S. by way of the Peace Bridge, which spans the Niagara River linking Fort Erie, Ont., with Buffalo, N.Y.
Instead, she got through with just the usual requirements – proof of Canadian citizenship, such as a birth certificate, and picture I.D., preferably a driver’s licence.
“I got just a warning sheet for now,” said Whitaker, who vowed to get herself a passport before trying to enter the U.S. again.
“I’m just going to be waiting for my passport next time I cross. I think it’s a good thing to have.”
Very few travellers were showing up without passports, Corsaroan said, but those that don’t aren’t being turned away solely for not having one.
“We will not refuse a Canadian entry into this country if that’s their only violation,” he said. “We’ve seen absolutely no effect whatsoever from the implementation of the law today, in fact we’re seeing upward of 95 per compliance as of last night at midnight.”
Mary Theresa McCann, 57, who was travelling with her 19-year-old daughter Kelly, said she had no problems crossing back into the U.S. since she already had a passport.
“It was fabulous, really easy,” McCann said. “We came up for a baby shower, we were just happy to be able to come up.”
Leslie Dritsas, a 37-year-old teacher from Arizona, didn’t know about the change, but it didn’t matter – an unpleasant experience during a crossing prompted her to get a passport two years ago.
“I did not have my passport last time, I had a birth certificate and it was horrible … they were, like, “How do we know that this is real?'” Dritsas said.”
“Now, with the passport, it makes it a lot easier, because then they can just scan it.”
According to Passport Canada, about 54 per cent of Canadians have the document, compared to just 30 per cent of Americans. The fear in Canada has been that the passport requirement would discourage U.S. tourists from travelling north.
Passports have been mandatory since 2007 for anyone flying into the U.S. from Canada, Mexico and Caribbean destinations; the land-crossing requirement, which had been slated to go into effect last January, was delayed to give people more time to get passports.
U.S. border officials at Calais, Maine, reported no problems as people crossed into the state early Monday from St. Stephen, N.B., most of them producing the necessary documents.
On the Canadian side, there’s a high awareness in the region about what it takes to get over the border, since a lot of New Brunswickers also make regular trips to border communities in Maine for cheaper gasoline and groceries.
Adam Leslie, 32, of Calais, works at a restaurant within view of the Calais-St. Stephen crossing and has family in St. Andrews, N.B., but like many of his fellow Americans, hasn’t made getting a passport much of a priority.
“I’m going to need to if I’m ever going to get back to St. Andrews to see the parents,” Leslie acknowledged.
“And my mother, on her end, hasn’t gotten one yet either to be able to come over here. She does a lot of shopping over here so she’s going to have to get one at some point.”
Leslie figures a lot of people on either side of the border may have thus far been discouraged by the cost of applying for a passport -$87 in Canada and $75 by mail in the U.S., or as much as $100 US if applying in person.
“I’m not sure how many people are prepared. A lot of people I know haven’t gotten them either, just because of money and such.”
Those who enter the U.S. without proper documents are given a paper that says: “Noncompliant. You are not in compliance with the secure document requirements that went into effect June 1, 2009, for entry into the United States.”
“U.S. and Canadian citizens must present a secure travel document for entry into the United States at land and sea ports of entry.”
Aside from a passport, other secure forms of documentation include a Nexus card or an enhanced driver’s licence.
New Brunswick Tourism Minister Stuart Jamieson said the number of American visitors to his province has been dropping since the passport requirement was announced, and he expects the decline to continue.
He says the province has begun targeting its tourism promotion budget on Quebec, Ontario and Europe to offset the loss.