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Crossing the border back into the United States yesterday after a long weekend in Baja, I saw a massive illuminated sign announcing, in Spanish and English, the pending new rules for U.S. citizens crossing back into California from Mexico.

The new rules will come into effect on Feb. 1. Here’s a run-down, according to a conversation I just had with Vince Bond, the public information officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection:

  • Originally, the new rules were going to require U.S. citizens crossing back into California to have a passport with them starting this year. That’s no longer the case, and passports will not be a requirement until probably around July 2009.
  • As of Feb. 1, U.S. and Canadian citizens over the age of 19 will no longer be able to cross the border by making an “oral declaration.” Those citizens will have to present a valid, government-issued photo ID and proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or naturalization certificate. Bond said the birth certificate can be a photocopy, but that the border agents would prefer to see a certified copy.
  • Children aged 18 and under will only be required to present proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.
  • Canadian and U.S. citizens can also present a passport or one of the State Department’s new passport cards, which will be available to U.S. citizens for cheaper than a passport and will allow citizens to travel between the United States and Canada, Mexico and Bermuda.
  • Members of the military can present valid green military IDs and their travel orders; SENTRI pass holders who are U.S. citizens can use those passes; citizens of some Canadian provinces will be able to use their enhanced driving licenses and U.S. merchant marines and Native American citizens will be able to use their identification cards too.
  • The new rules are part of U.S. Customs and Border protection’s effort to bring the southern borders into line with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which was enacted by Congress, on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

Here’s what Bond said about the upcoming changes:

If you don’t have the necessary documents, we’re not going to deny U.S. citizens entry into the United States, that’s just not going to happen.

Bond said his agents will be handing out information tear sheets to border crossers who don’t have the requisite documentation. The procedures at the border will be very similar to what has been happening for years, Bond said. He added:

We’ve done checks and found that well over half of all U.S. citizens are already compliant. This is a non-event as far as we’re concerned.

But Kenn Morris, CEO and President of Crossborder Business Associates, a market research and consulting group, said the rule changes will have a marked effect not just on border congestion, which he said is already a huge issue, but on cross-border tourism.

Here’s what he had to say:

Everyone at the border expects this to have a pretty significant impact as people begin to realize they need additional forms of identification to cross. … I think you’re definitely going to see a loss of tourism revenue in the coming months as people have doubts and concerns.

Morris said there will be even more problems next year, when the border guards begin to require passports or passport cards. He said his group interviewed border crossers for a survey in December and that they found only about a third of the U.S. citizen border crossers owned a passport.

WILL CARLESS

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