CALAIS, Maine — Ninety-two days and counting.
That is what the U.S. State Department is telling travelers on its Web site as the time nears when U.S. citizens will be required to have government-approved documentation to get back into the country.
On June 1, U.S. citizens crossing U.S. land and sea borders will have to present either a passport or passcard even when entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda. It is all part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
Most people are familiar with the passport but less familiar with the wallet-sized U.S. Passport Card. The country began production of the passcard last year and so far 700,000 have been issued, the U.S. State Department Web site said.
Showing documentation to get back into the country went into effect last year along the nation’s borders.
Most people who entered the country, at least along the Maine border, were prepared for the new Homeland Security rules that required either a passport or one form of photo identification and proof of citizenship.
For those people who forgot their identification, or just ignored the requirements, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials were flexible about enforcing the new rules. The individual was questioned and then made aware of the change and given a small flier telling them what to do.
But now government documentation in the form of a passport or passcard will be required.
Ted Woo, chief public affairs officer for Customs and Border Protection in Boston, said Thursday the agency is ready for the changeover on June 1.
“I think because of a lot of the outreach that we have done in New England, we are already in a very high compliance rate for people coming into the United States, whether it’s from Canada or U.S. people returning. A lot of people have their passports and are utilizing them,” he said.
Asked if customs officials again will be flexible after the start date for people who do not have passports, Woo said it would depend on the port of entry.
“There isn’t going to be a question of refusal, but it may take a little bit more time for the processing of that person, but … we haven’t seen any instances of people coming in without the right documentation. I don’t see any problems when June 1st comes along,” he said.
Customs and Border Protection is responsible for guarding nearly 7,000 miles of land border that the United States shares with Canada and Mexico and 2,000 miles of coastal waters surrounding the Florida peninsula and off the coast of southern California, CBP says on its Web site.
“The agency also protects 95,000 miles of maritime border in partnership with the United States Coast Guard,” the Web site adds.
“On a typical day in fiscal year 2008, CBP processed approximately 1 million passengers and pedestrians; 70,000 containers; and 331,000 privately owned vehicles,” the Web site says.
Amanda Rua, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department’s Boston Passport Agency, said Thursday that they have seen an increase in requests for passports. She said they are being processed in a timely manner, unlike last year when the State Department got bogged down by requests.
“We are between two and three weeks for expedited service and three to four weeks for regular service. So we are moving along pretty quickly,” she said.
So how are the post offices doing since most people file their passport applications locally?
Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the Maine District of the U.S. Postal Service, said Thursday that post offices have not been that busy. He blamed the low response on the economy.
“Business is down everywhere, including at the U.S. Postal Service,” he said.
“There may well be individual post offices who are not seeing as dramatic a drop [in passport applications] as we have seen generally,” Rizzo added.
Requests may be down statewide, but they are up in Calais.
Calais Postmaster Cindy Delmonaco said Thursday they have processed 10 or more requests a day in the past few weeks. She said her staff has handled it well.
“We do it between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. without appointments. If it is not possible to be here in that time span then we do it after 2:30 p.m. and on Saturdays with an appointment,” she said.
Anyone interested in obtaining a passport can do so at any time, but the State Department and postal service plan to hold a Passport Fair at post offices around the state on March 28. The post office also has a brochure titled “Passport Tips,” which explains the process.