September 18, 1998
(AP) - People legally crossing the U.S-Mexico border to shop or conduct business are accustomed to long lines at the ports of entry as immigration officials check their identification.
But at the Canadian border, tourists and residents have hardly any wait when crossing, and flash little more than a wave and a smile.
That may soon change.
A new immigration rule set to take effect Sept. 30 requires the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to use computerized border cards to track those who enter and exit the country.
The cards are part of a 1996 immigration reform law, which Congress conceived as a way of cracking down on visitors who overstay their visas. Such scofflaws comprise as many as 40 percent of illegal immigrants in the country, according to the INS.
The rule also is seen by some in Congress as a means of protecting the United States against terrorism and drug trafficking.
Canadian visitors have enjoyed a special status in years past, but now they will have to apply for immigration cards and submit to inspection, even for day visits.
For decades, Mexicans have had to tolerate red tape and long lines in getting border cards at U.S. consulates. They have little sympathy for their northern counterparts.
``Welcome to the club,'' said Baja California tourism director Juan Tintos in Tijuana.
Rodney Moore, a spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Washington, said increased inspections will hurt both countries economically. The United States and Canada do billions of dollars worth of trade annually, more than $27 billion in the month of June, he said. That compares to $14.5 billion between the United States and Mexico in the same month.
INS officials have repeatedly assured Canadians they have no intention of putting a system in place that would unduly create hardships, said Bill Strassberger, an INS regional spokesman.
The Canadians are not reassured.
``They've been having fits,'' said Strassberger ``They've been hyping this thing in the Canadian newspapers, talking about 16-hour waits at the border. The whole thing was blown totally out of proportion.''
The INS is testing various forms of electronic technology at a mock border crossing in Glynco, Ga., trying to find a system that can check a foreigner's visa status without creating chaos.
A proposal to try it at a real border crossing at Eagle Pass, Texas, earlier this year was scrapped after INS officials considered the traffic bottleneck it might create.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government has been rounding up allies in Washington in hopes of working out exemptions for its citizens.
The Senate has partly accommodated them in a resolution sent back to the House of Representatives that would limit the new system to airports, exempting seaport and land border crossings.
The INS agrees with that idea, Strassberger said.
``Given the technology ... the only place where an entry-exit system could be put in practice today is at an airport,'' he said.
How that idea will play out in the House by the end of the month remains to be seen, especially since 85 percent of all entries and exits of foreigners in the United States occur at land ports.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, one of the authors of the border inspection rule, does not want to see it watered down.
He said Canadian government intelligence reports that terrorist groups have gained a foothold north of the border and are actively seeking ways to slip into the United States.