Yesterday there was a front page story in USAToday about the plunging legal border traffic.  According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), cross border traffic is down 12.5% over the last year.  The article makes the argument that the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) – which requires U.S. citizens as well as Canadian and Bermudans to possess a passport or similar document when entering the country – is responsible for the bulk of the decrease.

Granted, WHTI was a dramatic change for those Americans who live and work on either side of the border as well as for Canadians near the border.  Gone are the days of driving back and forth with little more than your word.  WHTI took away the absurd reality that people could cross the U.S. border with no documentation attesting to nationality by simply verbally declaring themselves U.S. citizens.

Alternatively, CBP throws out a list of reasons for the slowdown. “There is the recession, exchange rates, gas prices. There’s border violence, there’s weather,” a CBP official is quoted as saying.  All of these are legitimate and likely have a good deal of impact on the rates.  But there is really no denying that forcing people who have never had a passport to get one has somewhat affected their travel plans.

While program compliance has been high, there are still grumblings about the program.  When WHTI was first implemented, the number of apocalyptic predictions was alarming.  The simple act of asking people to prove both identity and citizenship (a standard long required by law for all travelers and enforced along the southern border for Mexicans) was deemed impractical and reactionary.

To accommodate the naysayers, CBP spent millions of dollars in advertising to make the public aware of the requirements and then implemented the program in steps over a number of years (phased compliance).   It took almost eight years after 9/11 to fully implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.  Despite the rational approach of CBP, powerful members of Congress, Canadian diplomats, and northern border state officials fought the requirements tooth and nail – for every compromise in timing and additional allowable documents there were three new requests for delay or repeal.

The bottom line is that the WHTI program – although an additional burden – is necessary.  It is absurd for a nation to spend billions of dollars preventing illegal immigration on one border and obtaining visa and passenger information for all air travelers, to turn around and allow anyone who is smart enough to say they are a U.S. citizen to cross our northern border through our ports of entry.

Not only is the change about safety (take for example the Millennium Bomber and the much looser Canadian immigration and anti-terrorism measures) but it is about credibility and the rule of law.  A basic tenant (and responsibility) of a nation is the ability to determine who, and under what terms, someone enters our country.  To build trust with the American people to reform our hopelessly confused and antiquated immigration system – not to say anything about addressing the 12 million plus illegal immigrants in the United States already – the national government must possess a certain level of credibility with its citizens; credibility that was lacking during recent failed reform efforts.  Although contentious, that is what the government is doing by building the border fence, deploying the National Guard, penalizing exploitative employers and requiring secure travel documents at all ports of entry – earning credibility to one day have the right to fix the system.

I expect over time, as more people become aware of the WHIT requirements and make the decision to obtain a passport, a trusted traveler card, an enhanced driver’s license or a passport card, the cross border travel numbers will rebound.  After all, as CBP points out in the article, the document requirement is not the only force that is affecting international travel, and as the economy recovers so will travel.

For now though, it is disappointing that U.S. and Canadian travelers along our northern border do not feel the need to obtain the necessary travel documents to cross the border for a night of gambling in Windsor or a day at an amusement park in Buffalo, but it really is not too much to ask as it has been the law for decades now, it is now just being enforced.