Tighter border threatens to distance US, Canadian towns (Boston Globe)

Officials change ID requirement; Some travelers unfazed by rule

By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff

HOULTON, Maine - Canadians are among the best customers in this small town on the Canadian border, where Interstate 95 links to the Trans Canada Highway. On frequent visits fueled by a stronger Canadian dollar, they fill up their tanks at gas stations near the highway and pile their shopping carts high with milk and butter at the local IGA grocery.

Yesterday, as the US government enforced stricter rules along its borders, requiring all travelers to show a passport or two other forms of identification, Canadians were able to cross the border and visit Houlton businesses without a hitch.

But in Maine and in Woodstock, New Brunswick, a dozen miles away, some residents said the beefed-up border will widen the symbolic distance between them and might chill their economic and social relations. The new rules end a long practice of allowing travelers to prove their citizenship with an oral declaration.

"A lot of people would like to think they could slow down and wave like they used to, but everyone knows we're not going back to that," said Ken Harding, chief administrative officer in Woodstock.

The tightened requirements, to be enforced by US Customs and Border Protection agents along the 5,525-mile Canadian border and the shorter border with Mexico, precede a more dramatic shift in June 2009 that will require all border crossers to present passports. The rule was scheduled to take effect this year, but was recently postponed by Congress.

Some members of Congress, including Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, opposed the changes put in place yesterday, saying they would violate the intent of the postponement and interfere with cross-border trade.

"You have to be vigilant, but I think this is ill-advised, and will cause economic problems for the northern states," Sanders said in an interview.

After Alaska and Michigan, Maine has the longest span of Canadian border, according to the International Boundary Commission: 616 miles, split between land and water. Vermont has 90 miles, and New Hampshire 58 miles of border.

Houlton, the gateway to Maine's northernmost Aroostook County, has one of the busiest border crossings in New England, where 350,000 cars, 150,000 18-wheel trucks, and almost a million people cross into the United States annually, according to customs officials.

Yesterday morning, as bitter winds blasted the border, travelers were well prepared, and lines were short. Most said they had already obtained passports or birth certificates and become used to showing them. Those who lacked documents were given gentle reminders and handouts detailing the changes.

Previously, a traveler without a passport could present a driver's license or state identification card on its own. Now it must be combined with proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.

"If they don't have it, it's an extra 10 seconds to tell them what's required," said Theodore Woo, a spokesman in Boston for Customs and Border Protection. "They're not being sent to some room, and no one will be denied entry. This is an educational period for people."

He said no delays or problems were reported with the new rules yesterday across the region.

Frequent fliers found it hard to complain.

"It's a lot better crossing here than trying to check in at the Atlanta airport," said Fritz Weirathmueller, a Canadian.

Relations have long been friendly between Houlton, population 6,500, and Woodstock, a town of 5,200. Americans and Canadians intermarry; youth hockey teams cross over for competitions; and some residents commute to jobs through customs, including dozens of Canadian nurses who work at Houlton Regional Hospital.

Many residents said that the increased security is necessary and that it does not diminish the friendliness between them.

"It's important," said Gladys Dalton, a Canadian who enters Maine twice a week to buy gas and groceries. "There's too much going on."

Others said the changes create an unwanted barrier and do little to protect against terrorism.

Lonnie Forbes, another Canadian, shopped in Houlton yesterday, but said he will balk at spending $400 for four passports for his family.

"I'm just not going to do it," he said. "We would come down to Kittery in the spring to buy a bunch of stuff, but it's like a stop sign that says, 'We don't want you.' "

Troy Obar, a Houlton native, said he has no plans to apply for a passport and will abandon his favorite Canadian wilderness and find new places to go camping when the rules clamp down next year.

"I'm a stickler for the old times," he said, "for the way it was done for years, like you were going from state to state, instead of country to country."