WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congress has delayed a requirement that people entering the United States from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean show a passport when arriving by land or sea.
If President Bush signs the bill, citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Caribbean nations will not have to show a passport when entering the United States by land or sea until at least June 2009.
The Department of Homeland Security was poised to require passports for such travelers next June. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, delayed the requirement by one year by amending a budget bill Congress passed this week.
The Department of Homeland Security already requires citizens of those countries to show a passport when they fly into the United States. Yet people arriving by air account for just one in 10 people who cross the border, said Greg Cota, an aide to Leahy.
Despite the one-year delay, the Department of Homeland Security says it plans to require most people from the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean to present a birth certificate or some other document establishing their citizenship when they enter the United States on or after January 31, 2008.
Leahy criticized the birth-certificate requirement in a December 19 letter to Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security. The senator called it "unwise, ill-considered and counterproductive."
The passport requirement, Leahy told CNN, would hurt commerce between the United States and Canada while doing little to safeguard the country. Advocates of stricter enforcement of immigration laws argue that the passport requirement is one of several tools that authorities could use to thwart would-be terrorists.
Leahy said that terrorists are "not going to come across with a valid passport" and that the passport requirement is "really insulting to Canada." His action pleased many in Vermont, where U.S. and Canadian citizens have long crossed from one country into the next with relatively little scrutiny.
"All this is going to do is stop the people who want to come to the United States to spend money and the people who want to involve themselves with business or travel, education, healthcare -- whatever -- between the U.S. and Canada," he said. "It won't deter a single terrorist."
The change alarms Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank with a "pro-immigrant, low-immigration" outlook.
"People are taking the dangers of bad guys entering the country less seriously," he said. "Immigration control is designed to trip up malefactors."
National governments provide at least some level of scrutiny to citizens applying for a passport, he said, and so it makes sense for the United States to require incoming visitors to present documents that establish their identity and citizenship.
Krikorian also said he thinks Leahy's one-year delay could pave the way for an attempt to kill the proposed requirement outright if a Democrat wins the White House.
"His one-year delay is a tactic to kill the requirement in a future Democratic administration," he said.
Leahy assailed the proposed requirement in an interview with CNN.
"It looks good on paper," he said. "It makes no sense in reality."
It would be a "great mistake to require passports to go back and forth between the United States and Canada," he said, calling Canada "the closest friend we have." He also said the measure, if implemented, "will cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenues."
Leahy suggested investing more to improve intelligence-gathering in the United States and Canada to try to identify potential threats. In addition, he suggested the possibility of an identification card that citizens of the United States and Canada could use to cross the border. E-mail to a friend