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Stricter rules at the border coming by next summer

Top homeland security officials said Friday that tougher border crossing rules will be gradually imposed next year at the four international Niagara River crossings.

You may not need a passport to return to the United States. But it'll take more than a library card or verbal declaration to persuade customs officers that you're indeed an American.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will eventually require anyone re-entering the United States at land borders to have a passport or a secure travel document, such as a Nexus permit or a passport card now being developed. The government also is studying the idea of an enhanced driver's license.

"No one knows better than a frontline officer at our nation's border that [travel initiative] is a social and cultural change," said Robert Jacksta, chief of traveler security for the Customs and Border Protection Agency. "However, [it] creates a smart and more efficient and more secure border."

But others who testified at a House Homeland Security Committee meeting said the region's tourism economy already has been harmed by confusion over which documents will be allowed and when the rules take effect.

"Confusion and congestion can't be good for security," said Howard Zemsky, a Buffalo businessman who testified on behalf of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Binational Tourism Alliance in the Erie County Legislature chambers.

About six million cars entered the United States over the region's four border crossings last year. Anyone entering "may present thousands of different documents" to customs officers," said Paul Rosenzweig, the Homeland Security Department's acting assistant secretary for policy and international affairs.

Under the travel initiative, with fewer documents allowed, "precious time now spent examining the face of a document will, instead, be used to probe those seeking to enter the United States who may be of higher risk," Rosenzweig said in written testimony.

The practice of accepting only verbal declarations of citizenship will end Jan. 31.

U.S. and Canadian citizens will be required to carry a passport or government-issued photo identification, such as a driver's license, and proof of citizenship, such as a copy of a birth certificate.

Children age 15 or younger will have to present certified copies of their birth certificates.

The more stringent travel document requirements will be fully implemented as early as the summer of 2008, Rosenzweig said.

The sister of a New York City firefighter killed in the World Trade Center urged Washington to lower the cost of passports and fix the delays in obtaining them rather than weaken and delay the initiative.

"If Americans can obtain affordable passports within a reasonable time frame, the impact of [the travel initiative] will be both temporary and minimal," said Kathleen Lynch of Snyder, whose brother, Michael Lynch, died on Sept. 11, 2001. "In contrast, the economic impact of a terrorist attack, no matter where it occurs, will have a far more devastating ripple effect: on commerce and travel, on our borders, on our first responders and military and -- as the families and friends of those lost on 9/1 1 can attest -- on life itself."

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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