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Passport rule gets amended for youths

Youth under age 17 won't need a passport to return to the United States from Canada under a rule change Thursday by the Bush administration. The move comes ahead of legislation that would have made similar changes, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Colli...

Youth under age 17 won't need a passport to return to the United States from Canada under a rule change Thursday by the Bush administration.

The move comes ahead of legislation that would have made similar changes, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District.

The new passport requirements, part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, take effect next January. In a change from earlier plans, children age 15 or younger with parental consent will be allowed to cross the borders at land and sea entry points with certified copies of their birth certificates rather than passports.

Children ages 16 through 18 traveling with school, religious, cultural or athletic groups and under adult supervision will also be allowed to travel with only their birth certificates.

Beginning last Jan. 23, nearly all air travelers entering the U.S. who are citizens of Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean -- as well as returning American citizens -- have been required to display passports. Children entering the United States by air will still be required to show passports.

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Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the easing of rules for children entering by land or sea was in part the result of talks between the department and Canadians and interested state officials. Canada and U.S. border states have been concerned that the passport requirements would hurt legitimate travel and commerce.

When the new requirements for travelers crossing land and sea borders take effect, it will bring residents of Western Hemisphere nations under the same rules as travelers from the rest of the world.

The rules were mandated by Congress in 2004 as a response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the recommendations by the Sept. 11 Commission that border security be tightened.

But Peterson and U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., have been critical of how the new rules will affect travel at Minnesota's border with Canada. Coleman has held several hearings on the matter, and co-sponsored an amendment last year to postpone the day for the passport rule to take effect until June 2009, giving the Department of Homeland Security time to find the best system that still is onerous for travel.

Mandating passports, which cost $95 each, would place a burden on families and workers who commute across the border, Peterson and Coleman said.

"I welcome today's announcement that children under 16 will not be required to purchase passports or passport equivalents as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative," Coleman said Thursday in a statement.

"This will help address the concerns I have raised about the cost to border residents, as well as the initiative's impact on hockey teams near the border, school trips, and other low-risk travel," he said. "While I will press ahead to address some other concerns related to the initiative, such as enabling a secure drivers license to be used as an alternative to a passport and ensuring adequate time and resources for implementation, I think today's news shows the Department of Homeland Security is listening to the valid concerns myself and others have heard from folks living along the border."

A bill introduced last week by U.S. Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter, D-N.Y., and with Peterson as one of three co-sponsors, would provide a special rule for youth 16 and under, exempting them from having to "present to an immigration officer a passport or other document, or combination of documents ... to re-enter the United States at an international land or maritime border of the United States."

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Also, the bill provides for student minors traveling as part of an authorized and supervised school trip -- students ages 17 and 18 -- to forgo the need for passports.

And, the bill calls for the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the State Department, to solicit a pilot project with at least one state to determine if using a driver's license of that state can be enhanced to satisfy terrorism protection efforts. A similar amendment has been proposed by Coleman in the Senate.

"I am encouraged that the administration is expected to announce a WHTI exemption for children, a step I have been advocating for nearly two years," Slaughter said Thursday in a statement prior to the administration's announcement.

"And I expect that the administration will soon announce a delay in the imposition of agricultural inspection fees. But we need to go much further and look at our northern border policies as a whole. Otherwise, we risk unintentionally curbing legitimate travel and trade with Canada," she said.

"Our borders should shut down those who would do us harm, not local economies throughout America," Slaughter added.

Peterson last week told Forum Communications that "in my district, commerce doesn't stop at the border. For the sake of businesses and their employees who rely on ease of access, this legislation is critical."

This story includes material from The Associated Press.

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