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US eyes tighter guidelines on passports

WASHINGTON -- Americans traveling to Canada and Mexico would need passports to come home to the United States under guidelines proposed yesterday in the latest effort to deter terrorists from entering the country

The new rules, which would be phased in by 2008, apply to Americans traveling from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Panama. They also apply to citizens from those countries who want to enter the United States.

The regulations mark a dramatic shift from a policy that allows Americans to return home from neighboring countries without a passport. They also raise the potential of hampering tourism and commercial traffic with the United States' two immediate neighbors.

An estimated 60 million Americans -- about 20 percent of the national population -- have passports.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said US officials have been working with their international counterparts ''for some time" to shore up security measures without crimping the flow of commerce across borders. The new rules were called for in intelligence legislation Congress passed last year.

''There's a very strong awareness that these are tremendous commercial borders and that you don't want to hinder the commercial activity," Rice said in an interview with the Associated Press. ''But at the same time, you've got to have some controls that help you prevent people who are trying to come in and hurt us."

She added: ''It's part of the recognition that in 2001, when Sept. 11 happened -- and frankly before that, when you think about the millennium plot in 1999 -- these were borders that I think no one could call secure."

Canada was deeply embarrassed by the millennium terrorist plot, when US customs caught a man with explosives trying to enter Washington state from Canada in December 1999.

Canadian officials said they believed current border-crossing programs with the United States would ease any delays or other problems caused by the new regulations. Canada is the United States' largest trading partner, with $1.2 billion worth of goods crossing the border every day.

''Obviously, there's an adjustment here, but we have time and also a good enough relationship that we can discuss issues going forward," said Alex Swann, spokesman for Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan.

Nearly 16 million Canadians entered the United States last year, generating an estimated $7.9 billion in travel-related revenues, according to data provided by the Travel Industry Association in Washington.

The new requirements would take effect on Dec. 31, 2007, for travelers entering the United States from Mexico and Canada by land, and on Dec. 31, 2006, by air or sea. The deadline is a year earlier -- Dec. 31, 2005 -- for travel from Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Panama.

The proposed rules are scheduled to be finalized this fall.

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