A proposed passport requirement for re-entry to the United States from Canada that sparked a firestorm of opposition across the northern border may be scrapped after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff promised Monday in a visit to Buffalo to explore enhanced driver's licenses instead.
The nation's top security watchdog met with local officials of the Peace Bridge Authority and backed off on what had been an ironclad insistence on passports.
While he reinforced the end of "oral declarations" at the northern border to establish citizenship and again nixed proposals for U.S. inspection facilities in Canada, he said he recognized the need to maintain a free flow of commerce and tourism at places such as the bustling Peace Bridge.
"The last thing we want to do is interfere with what you see behind us," Chertoff said at the bridge. "But on the other hand, . . . we have to drive ourselves to a system where we have reliable identification so that our inspectors can do the job we ask, which is to protect our country."
Chertoff has been under fire even from normally supportive Republicans like Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of Clarence, who are concerned that the passport proposal would severely hamper billions of dollars worth of annual trade and tourism traversing the New York-Ontario border.
To that end, Chertoff appeared Monday with Rep. Louise M. Slaughter of Fairport and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, both Democrats, to commit to working with the states to enhance driver's licenses to federal security standards and avoid required purchase of $97 passports. He said he would meet with Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer within the next month to discuss technologically enhancing driver's licenses to serve as the equivalent of a passport.
"We want to work with state authorities to see if we can get a license like that under way beginning early next year," he said. "So this is about finding a way forward that is reasonable but that is also secure . . . where we can guarantee the American people that the documents people are using to come across this border are real and not phony, secure and not fragile, and reflect a true increase in security."
But Chertoff also emphasized that New York and other states must commit to the timely development of such a system.
"If we get a real commitment to getting these things done in the provinces as well as here in the United States," he said, "I think we can actually lick this problem in a way that will get us the kind of security we deserve but also avoid any serious impediment to the flow of trade."
Still, the secretary's repeat declaration of the death of a "shared border management" proposal that would expedite construction of a new Peace Bridge by stationing U.S. border inspection facilities in Fort Erie, Ont., triggered the ire of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
While Chertoff said he could not subject U.S. border officers to the authority of Canadian law despite the advantages for Peace Bridge expansion, Higgins said Homeland Security has "exacerbated delay" of the new bridge. He said the department should now cooperate by negotiating a new lease with the Peace Bridge Authority to grant it greater bonding capacity, immediate cooperation in designing a new bridge and plaza, and assigning more officers to the bridge.
Chertoff headed Higgins off on the last point, announcing he is sending 60 more Customs and Border Protection officers to Buffalo to expedite crossing the border, as well as authorizing more overtime to more fully staff the inspection plaza.
The secretary's new acceptance of identification other than passports came as good news to Slaughter and Schumer, who had been highly critical of the passport proposal as a hindrance to trade and tourism, but who also acknowledged the need for increased security following the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Slaughter, who convened Monday's meeting, said she felt "a bit resentful about the notion we are not interested in security." Still, she expressed support for the flexibility that Chertoff now shows in the face of such stiff opposition.
"We believe and we insist that we have our security and our economic survival as well," she said. "It's no secret to us that we cannot afford to lose that revenue that comes across the bridge."
Schumer agreed, labeling the meeting a "breakthrough" and calling the steady stream of traffic across the bridge a unique international travel situation that demands unique solutions.
"We need to make sure that the number one economic engine of this area, which has had difficult times, is not just ignored," he said. "I know what it is to need security. But the beauty of this is we believe we can have both."
Chertoff, meanwhile, said a genuine commitment to devise a driver's license identification would make a "persuasive case" for delaying requirements set for 2008 that would require a driver's license with a photo along with a certified copy of a birth certificate to gain entrance to the country.
But survivors of victims killed in the World Trade Center also confronted Chertoff at the Peace Bridge to declare no delay is acceptable in the face of heightened threats of terrorism since the attacks of 2001. Beverly Eckert, a Buffalo area native whose husband -- Sean Rooney -- died in the Sept. 11 attack in 2001, said though she understands the region's needs, she and other family members want heightened security.
"I just think it's a different world now," she said, adding she was "overwhelmed" with outrage at Slaughter and Schumer for seeking delays in Homeland Security's implementation of more-stringent border requirements.
"I think they can do better," she said. "I don't see why they need more delays."
Staff writer Harold McNeil contributed to this story.