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CONGRESS SHOULD BE RED-FACED ABOUT LAW THAT STIGMATIZES CANADIANS

The legislative snafu that might cause havoc in border regions like this may not matter to members of Congress from most other areas. That means it could be a real test of this area's congressional delegation to get the law amended.

Fortunately, Western New York legislators should have some help. Though normally in competition for cross-border traffic, Buffalo and Detroit face a common threat in the misguided bill that would force Canadians to produce paperwork every time they enter or leave this country.

That means at least two delegations should be pushing Rep. John LaFalce's bill to repeal that portion of the immigration reform law that Congress passed last year. And the ripple effect from cross-border trade extends beyond just the border states, meaning even more members may sign on, a LaFalce spokesman notes.

That multipronged effort may be necessary to overcome inertia on the part of other lawmakers who want credit for tackling immigration and don't much care about fine print that could have a drastic -- if unintended -- impact in some other member's district.

And it may be necessary to overcome the lack of help from a White House that may be too fearful of offending Mexico to do right by the Canadians.

It is generally conceded that the law -- the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 -- was intended primarily to stop the flow of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border.

But since no countries were specifically mentioned -- or exempted -- its provision mandating that "every alien" provide documentation when entering or leaving the United States means Canadians would be covered when it takes effect a year from now.

That's a ridiculous requirement to impose on a border like this one, where illegal immigration is next to nothing and where the 1995 U.S.-Canada Shared Border Accord was approved to enhance already vigorous cross-border traffic that helps economies in both countries.

Canadian officials note that the two countries do $1 billion worth of trade every day. About $300 million of that is in auto industry-related "just-in-time" shipments that could be severely impacted by this law.

The impact on people would be just as serious. Close to 116 million individuals cross from Canada into the United States each year, and 76 million of them are Canadians or permanent U.S. residents who would be affected by the law.

Currently, Canadian officials note, only 5 percent of them are documented when they enter. Under this new law, all would have to stop, fill out admissions paperwork and have their documents checked. Then they'd have to do the same thing when leaving the United States to return home -- whether they came to shop, dine, take in a play or see a Bills or Sabres game.

It would be a paperwork nightmare that could put a severe damper on cross-border business and friendship. And Canadians won't be the only ones affected.

Who's to say irate Canadians won't reciprocate? Reason might dictate that they'd be loath to do anything that would make it harder for Americans to visit Ontario casinos. But issues of national pride and fairness could cause retaliation.

And even if Americans aren't required to fill out forms and produce documentation, they'll still be affected. They'll still be stuck in long bridge lines behind Canadians caught in this bureaucratic trap.

For a Congress and White House that are supposed to be "reinventing government" and making life easier by cutting red tape, this provision should cause some red faces. The only good thing about it is that it's easy to fix. Congress should take care of it before adjourning in the next few weeks.

Failing that, it should at least be the first item on the agenda when members return in January.

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