Many hurry to get travel documents

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Filling out an application at the post office on Midway Drive in San Diego last week, Fernando De Santiago was among the last-minute customers who have been lining up there to obtain a passport or pas

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Filling out an application at the post office on Midway Drive in San Diego last week, Fernando De Santiago was among the last-minute customers who have been lining up there to obtain a passport or passport card by June.

Though travel to the United States has been subject to stricter rules for some time, a new regulation that kicks in June 1 will once and for all make the days of casual, document-free travel to and from Mexico a distant memory for U.S. citizens.

When returning through land or sea ports of entry from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean, U.S. citizens will be required to present a passport or one of a handful of accepted documents: a passport card, a “trusted traveler” card such as a SENTRI pass, or a driver’s license enhanced with radio-frequency technology, issued in some states but not California.

The change, part of what’s called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, is an outgrowth of national security legislation enacted five years ago. Passports were required for air travelers returning from within the region in January 2007.

Beginning in January of last year, travelers 19 and older re-entering by land or sea had to present proof of citizenship, such as a birth or naturalization certificate, along with their state-issued identification. Oral declarations of citizenship, long the norm for day-trippers returning from Baja California, became a thing of the past.

With the final implementation of the travel initiative, state-issued driver’s licenses, identification cards and birth certificates won’t be acceptable documents for travelers 16 and older, although birth and naturalization certificates are still acceptable for minors under 16. The new rule won’t affect legal, permanent residents.

At the Midway Drive post office, which takes walk-in passport applicants, lines have been longer than usual for about a month, said Susana Valenton, a passport acceptance clerk.

“By around 8:45, we have a long line already,” Valenton said.

De Santiago, 42, a U.S. citizen for 15 years, said he had waited until the last minute because he hadn’t had an urgent need for a passport – until he realized that the new rule would affect his planned vacation in June to the Mexican city of Zacatecas, where he was born.

“I didn’t have any trips planned,” De Santiago said as he scribbled his personal information on an application for a passport card. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done this.”

De Santiago, who plans to fly to Zacatecas from Tijuana, doesn’t travel much, so he chose the less-expensive passport card, a newer option that can be used only at land and sea ports of entry upon returning from nations covered by the initiative. The card costs $45, while a traditional passport book costs $100. The card can’t be used for international air travel.

According to the U.S. State Department, there are more U.S. passport holders now than in 2002, when only about 19 percent of U.S. citizens had them. Today, 30 percent of U.S. citizens hold passports. Meanwhile, more than 1 million passport cards have been issued since production began last summer.

When the new travel regulations were announced in 2005, there was concern from business interests on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border about long lines heading to the north side and depressed tourism on the south side.

Tijuana residents, U.S. citizens among them, commute to jobs in San Diego County, while Baja California has long been a travel destination for visitors from throughout Southern California and beyond.

More than a year after the initial proof-of-citizenship requirement went into effect, there have been fewer problems than had been feared, said Angelika Villagrana, executive director of public policy for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“There has been a lot of awareness, I think,” she said. “Because they started it a little bit gradually, going from nothing to birth certificates, people that cross a lot are getting used to it.”

Villagrana said the travel industry has done successful outreach, though there are still tourists who can’t cross into Mexico because they lack the proper documents to return.

This continues to worry merchants in Baja California, where the tourism industry has been hammered by drug-cartel violence, the global recession and most recently the swine flu, which slowed Mexico’s economy to a near halt this month as the government moved to contain the virus.

The proof-of-citizenship rule hasn’t helped, said Antonio Tapia Hernandez, director of the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce.

“It generated uncertainty,” Tapia said. “ ‘Do I need it or not? Will I be detained or have problems upon returning?’ The more documents are required, the less people want to cross.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said last week that they weren’t expecting longer lines than usual leading into San Diego County on June 1.

“The more people have WHTI-compliant documents, the faster the lines will go,” said Vince Bond, a spokesman for the agency. “It speeds up the whole process.”
Bond said that travelers who don’t immediately have the right documents but who aren’t suspected of fraud won’t be turned away. Customs officers have been and will continue handing out fliers listing which documents are acceptable.

This year, equipment was installed at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to read traveler information on radio-frequency chips embedded in passport cards, SENTRI and other trusted-traveler passes, and the “enhanced” driver’s licenses being issued in Washington, Michigan, Vermont and New York.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.