By Beth Gorham
WASHINGTON (CP) - Canada is getting caught in the crossfire of U.S. security plans that are too onerous, says a key American legislator.
New York Representative Louise Slaughter, who chairs the powerful House rules committee, said in an interview with The Canadian Press that plans to require passports at land borders are a prime example of bad anti-terrorism policy.
"I don't think they really appreciate the damage that they're doing," said Slaughter. "It's disconcerting.
"They have no reason in the world to believe that Canada's not as secure and they can't do as good a job as we do."
Slaughter, whose district includes Buffalo and Niagara Falls, N.Y., introduced legislation last week that would force U.S officials to consider allowing Canadians and Americans to use high-technology driver's licences in lieu of passports.
She backs Canada's position that U.S. officials must take all the extra time Congress gave them, until June 2009, to implement the passport plan or risk devastating trade and tourism.
But State and Homeland Security department officials say they'll get it going by the beginning of 2008, well before a two-year pilot project using driver's licences at several crossings in southern British Columbia and northwest Washington state is finished
"We just can't let this happen," said Slaughter, who is hoping to make her case next month at a hearing of the House homeland security committee.
"But they are very difficult to move. They seem to be wanting to put enormous pressure on the Canadian government to do things they can't do," she said.
"The biggest issue we've got is to try to get them to think differently about our border and the Mexican border" where illegal immigration is a huge problem.
About 40 per cent of Canadians already have passports, and just 27 per cent of Americans do.
The United States is also developing a passport card that will be cheaper but still contain citizenship information.
However, officials are telling state leaders that while they can have the cards ready by the beginning of next year, the machines to read the cards won't be in place by then.
Business groups on both sides of the border are complaining that all the uncertainty is already hurting cross-border travel.
"A lot of people aren't going to go to Florida from Canada," said Slaughter. "It is going to have an impact on that economy down there. We just perhaps might want to get the Florida delegation riled up about that."
As well, said Slaughter, Vancouver is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2010.
"We've got to make sure people can smoothly cross our borders. You're going to need a crowd from the United States."
Ambassador Michael Wilson, who calls the passport plan the "single most pressing" problem for Canada right now, has been lobbying hard for a delay.
Four premiers, from Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick are planning to argue Canada's case in a visit to Washington later this month.
"This isn't a discussion about security," Wilson said last week. "This is implementation, how we address and get that right balance between security and the legitimate flow of goods, services and people that go across the border.
"That balance is very important."
Slaughter and others in the U.S. are as concerned as Canadian officials because they understand the potential impact on casual crossings that are a way of life, said Wilson.
"The border to them isn't a border. It's a place they have to cross to get to the other side but they don't see it as something that should become a barrier."
Slaughter, who noted she's been listening to CBC radio for 20 years, said there are a lot of families in her district who own property on both sides.
"It's like one country with a river through it," she said. "We're more than friends. We all know each other. And count on each other, frankly.
"The Buffalo Bills require Canadians to come, as do the Sabres."
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