Saturday, December 8, 2007

Christmas holidays, Adriana Aguilar won't be joining the festive get-togethers this year with friends and family just across the Texas-Mexico line in Nuevo Laredo.

Christmas holidays, Adriana Aguilar won't be joining the festive get-togethers this year with friends and family just across the Texas-Mexico line in Nuevo Laredo.


Aguilar, a U.S. citizen living in this bustling border town, simply isn't willing to endure what she expects will be new, agonizingly long waits at security checkpoints along the border.

Stepped-up inspections of border crossers is slowing the ever-growing lines of traffic at the Laredo points of entry. And it could get worse. In less than two months, U.S. citizens will no longer be allowed to enter the country just by announcing their citizenship ― they'll have to prove it.

The changes are raising concerns that people like Aguilar will stay away from the border, damaging economies on both sides. Laredo officials say 40 percent of local retail activity depends on cross-border traffic.

Maria Luisa O'Connell, president of the Phoenix-based Border Trade Alliance, said border cities are concerned they'll lose retail sales tax.

"Instead of choosing to travel to come shopping and have dinner four times, they're going to choose to do it only once," she said. "It's a huge income concern for cities in the U.S. ... What we're worried about is the perception that people will say, 'Why bother?' if it is going to be hard to cross."

The Texas Border Coalition, a group of local officials, asked President Bush in a letter last month to do something about the long wait times before Christmas.

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, the coalition's chairman, said he would encourage the government to operate like any commercial entity and move the lines along: "I'd do everything to be sure the customers come back and visit my store."

Traffic is particularly heavy on weekends, with lines extending many blocks into Nuevo Laredo.

"It'll be even longer in a couple of weeks," said Francisco Sierra, who was waiting in a line of cars to get close enough to drop off his wife so she could cross by foot to go shopping.

People waited 30-40 minutes on Friday to cross the border in Laredo, the nation's busiest checkpoint. At Eagle Pass, a small border city with a population of 26,000, the wait was 55 minutes.

Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas said such waits are normal, but he expects them to lengthen to two hours or more to cross by car as Christmas approaches.

"It'll get a little more saturated," Salinas said. "Sometimes up to two hours or more ... because the traffic is going to intensify. But as the traffic intensifies, all the lanes are being opened, there's more personnel."

Aguilar said that in three border-crossings in the last two months, she had to show a photo ID to get back into the U.S., rather than just announce her citizenship to the border agent.

Aguilar is now getting her passport in preparation for requirements going into effect next year as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. As of Jan. 31, 2008, U.S. and Canadian citizens 19 years and older who enter at land and sea ports of entry will have to present either a passport or a photo ID plus proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Kelly Klundt said when fully implemented, the checks should reduce the wait time.

She said any increase in ID inspections is not a dry run for January and that the "de facto process of CBP officers for years has been to ask for any supporting documentation."

The Department of Homeland Security issued a reminder Dec. 3 about the upcoming changes, and Klundt said the department is working with communities on local awareness campaigns.

But there's also concern that fewer people will cross because they've heard only vague information about the upcoming requirements or they've been warned about lengthy holiday wait times.

"People right now are confused as to what's required, when is it required," said Stan Korosec, president of the Public Border Operators Association, which represents nine publicly owned U.S.-Canada border crossings. "Then you throw in the delays and I think some people are just going to give up on it."


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