Onichuk weighs in against passport plan

Sharing the table with a pair of high-profile members of the United States government, Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk didn’t have to spend much of his time convincing the visiting dignitaries that their country’s proposed passport regulations will have a big impact—and not a good one—on businesses on this side of the International Bridge.
Others on hand for Saturday’s meeting in International Falls proved that point for him.
“My wife and I have already stopped going to Fort Frances,” said Ranier Mayor Dave Trompeter, who used to cross the border to go shopping here every Saturday.
“It’s too hard to get into our own country.”
Of only a handful of speakers, two more said they, too, rarely cross into Canada because of the long line-ups and hassles they face trying to re-enter the U.S.
And if Minnesota residents already are fed up with crossing the border, things won’t get any smoother on Jan. 1, 2008 when a proposal takes effect that would require anybody entering the U.S.—including Americans themselves—to present a passport at the port-of-entry.
With Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and Ann Barrett, director of passport services for the U.S. State Department, listening carefully, Mayor Onichuk spoke passionately about the impact the new regulation will have on the everyday lives of those living on both sides of the Borderland region.
“Decisions quite often are made in Ottawa and Washington and there is not a lot of consideration when it gets to the border, the areas where it actually affects the people,” the mayor said.
“It’s going to put a barrier on all aspects of our lives,” he stressed. “Because some politicians drew a line down the middle of Rainy River or Rainy Lake and said you’re Canada and you’re the United States, that doesn’t change the fact that our economics are identical, we share families, we fight together, we grow together, everything else.”
One of only two Canadian speakers at Saturday’s forum held at Rainy River Community College, Mayor Onichuk argued that with thousands of miles of unprotected border, including the expansive Rainy Lake, terrorists and criminals will find a way to cross the border if they want to do so.
“Going to the border and having an acceptable piece of identification all comes down to the people who are honest and want to do the right thing and the problems it’s going to cause for them.
“Is it the honest people, the good citizens of either country, that are trying to go across illegally?” Mayor Onichuk asked. “No. If somebody wants to enter the United States to cause harm to the people, they’re not crossing the border.”
Sen. Coleman, a first-term Republican and former mayor of St. Paul, Mn., admitted implementing more restrictions at border crossings will not solve all the problems, especially in an area like this.
“In Minnesota, where you have the ability in the wintertime to snowmobile across, the ability in the summertime to boat across huge expanses of open water, what are we really accomplishing here?” he said.
“The problem is the rest of us pay the price, but the question is: is the price worth it.”
He added the proposal is not intended to punish the millions who cross the Canada-U.S. border legally each year, but noted the so-called “Millennium bomber” was caught with powerful explosives at a west coast border crossing, allegedly enroute to the Los Angeles International Airport.
“We may have to have greater confidence in Canada’s ability to do its immigration and be less concerned about what comes from Canada here,” Sen. Coleman said. “Right now, we don’t have that.”
But that incident was unique, argued Kim Butler, the Canadian Consul General in Minneapolis.
“Canada recognizes the importance of security on both sides of the border,” said Butler. “We want an efficient and safe border. But while security is important, efficiency and moving people is of equal importance.”
“We all live and deal with the same issues,” echoed Mayor Onichuk, who suggested that co-ordinating efforts with provincial and state governments to add citizenship information to birth certificates and driver’s licences might be a better—and more affordable—option for most.
“I don’t think we need to re-invent the wheel to establish the security that we’re looking for,” he said.
In a whirlwind tour Saturday that also included visits to Baudette and Warroad, Sen. Coleman and Barrett, whose agency is tasked with mulling over the millions of passport applications received each year, heard a variety of concerns about the impact the U.S. passport policy might have.
In International Falls, the focus was primarily on tourism, business, and family matters.
“The tourism tree, I think, is huge,” said Patti Ballan, who chairs the International Falls Chamber of Commerce. “People visit, buy gas, groceries, stay over, then go to Canada and do the same.
“Our fear is that they would choose alternate destinations.”
Billy Daugherty, who owns and operates Rainy Lake Houseboats in Voyageurs National Park, said the proposal will seriously limit how much of the 225,000-acre body of water American tourist camps will be able to take visitors on.
“With what’s going on right now with the passport issue, we’re looking at only being able to market 80,000 acres of that lake,” he said, joking that with the number of regulations already in place, anglers trolling Rainy Lake refer to their tackle-boxes as “legal briefcases.”
Mayor Onichuk, who said he has more family in International Falls than he has here in Fort Frances, talked about the impact the proposal might have on family relationships.
“How is it going to affect our lives?” he asked, suggesting the rule might prevent proud parents from crossing the border to show off a newborn baby or preventing the elderly from seeking medical treatment.
Concerns about how the move might impact emergency response times and youth hockey were among the other issues presented to Sen. Coleman and Barrett on their border tour.
And that wide-range of concerns, said Sen. Coleman, was exactly why they made the trip.
“We’ve heard a lot of the impact on families, a lot of the impact on small business, and a lot of the impact on communities,” he said as he wrapped up the one-hour session.
“That is a good thing. We’re really trying to make sure that common sense is being employed,” he stressed.
“I want to make sure that before the policy goes in effect that we really understand the impacts,” Sen. Coleman added. “What are the consequences of setting in place this system? What are the practical implications?
“These are the things we have to think about.”
Both Sen. Coleman and Barrett promised to take the viewpoints expressed in the three public meetings back to their colleagues in Washington, D.C.
“We are trying to look at ways of doing this better,” Barrett said. “We do know this impacts greatly on communities such as your own on both sides of the border.
“While abiding by the law, we have to look at what the consequences are,” she remarked.