New, stricter passport rules took effect last month and a lot of American travelers and foreign tourism complained bitterly. According to the State Departmentís new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, if youíre a U.S. citizen traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda, you will now need to present a valid passport to get back into the United States after your trip.
By next January, the same rules will apply to everyone traveling by land or sea as well.
These new rules have upset some people because they didnít have to have a passport before. It used to be fine to fly to Jamaica, the Bahamas or Montreal with just a birth certificate or driverís license as proof of U.S. citizenship. Now you have to pay nearly $100 to apply for a passport and $60 more if you need to get it in a hurry. Also, the new rules have meant that people who had winter vacations planned had to spend time waiting in long lines at the hundreds of offices where passport applications are available.
Meanwhile, tourism officials in Canada and the Caribbean worry that the new rules will hurt their business because they fear Americans wonít want to go to the trouble to get a passport and will stay home instead.
I have one thing to say to all of these folks: Oh, please.
Until last month I wasnít even eligible to apply for a passport because I wasnít a naturalized U.S. citizen. Today, it gives me the greatest pleasure to hand over my new citizenship certificate and ask the Allegheny County Clerk to approve my first U.S. passport. And Iím not alone.
On January 19, at the Federal Courthouse downtown, I raised my right hand and standing with some 45 others swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States while renouncing my allegiances to any and all other foreign powers.
It was not an oath that any of us took lightly and getting the letter inviting you to the swearing in ceremony can be the toughest ticket imaginable. It took me 12 years and four visas to get there and, Iím certain, mine was one of the less complicated paths to citizenship.
Indeed, where we were all coming from, what we were sacrificing and the commitment we were making to this country was of utmost concern to Chief District Judge Joy Flowers Conti, who presided over the ceremony. She made a point of saying that while immigration issues had garnered a lot of recent headlines and news media coverage, citizenship and naturalization was being overlooked.
Judge Conti also asked each person who was being sworn in as new citizen to stand, give their name and their country of origin. Twenty-five different countries were represented.
It was less surprising to hear that people from India, China, Iran, Sudan and Vietnam wanted more than anything to become American. While those coming from the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and France seemed more out of place since they donít exactly fit the profile of huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But there were also those of us from countries that are now subject to the new passport rules, like Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago and Canada (where I was born), and the one thing we all have in common is that all of us want nothing more than to apply for a U.S. passport. In fact, some of those sworn in on that Friday morning made an immediate beeline to the passport office five floors downstairs, right after the ceremony.
It will now be our privilege to travel to the countries of our birth using our new U.S. passports. Or anywhere else for that matter since an American passport opens the way to travel to any country in the world. And meanwhile getting a passport is something a lot of native-born Americans never bother to do. The State Department says only 27 percent of Americans even have one.
The new passport rules are part of a larger effort by the Department of Homeland Security to help secure this countryís borders, while clearing the way for legitimate travelers to enter the United States. In fact, more than five years after the attacks of 9/11, itís curious that it took this long to implement such common sense travel rules. Why thereís a delay implementing the rules across all forms of travel and to all countries is even more worrisome.
Meanwhile, all those folks who are in line to get their passports so they can get away to Bermuda, just remember, itís not an inconvenience, itís an honor and a privilege.
Abby Wisse Schachter can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org
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