Unspoken rule allows passport-free border crossings

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer checks the identification of a traveler entering the United States from Mexico. Photo courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Luis Castillo of Nogales doesn’t have a U.S. passport or passport card. But that didn’t stop him from crossing the border into Mexico.

Despite federal regulations stating otherwise, Castillo was able to return to the U.S. by showing border officials his birth certificate and state-issued identification. His young daughters, who crossed with him, returned with just their photo identification cards.

Their only penalty: a minor scolding from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official, who urged them to get passports.

“I thought it was going to be harder to get in than it was,” Castillo said

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which went into effect in June 2009, requires all U.S. citizens to present a passport, passport card, enhanced driver’s license or tribal card, or a trusted traveler document such as a SENTRI card to get back into the country. But Nogales residents know it’s not unusual to see people like Castillo using a birth certificate to re-enter the country at local border crossings.

“Birth certificates are not WHTI-approved documents,” CBP spokesman Brian Levin said. “There are certain security features that have to be there – RFID (radio frequency identification) chip and machine-readable strip.”

Even so, he added, “That’s not to say that we’re going to turn somebody away if they have a birth certificate.”

Travelers who don’t have one of the WHTI-approved documents can use a birth certificate in combination with a government-issued photo ID to gain entry, Levin said. If they have only one or the other, or no identification, they won’t be denied entry to the country, but their crossing will be delayed until they can prove their citizenship.

In that case, the person would be sent for further inspection to figure out what means they had to prove their citizenship. Sometimes people call home and get a friend or relative to bring their passport down to the port of entry. Other times a friend or relative might fax a copy of their passport or other identification to CBP to help substantiate their citizenship.

Juveniles under age 16 don’t need a passport, Levin said – just a birth certificate or state-issued photo identification, ideally both.

“We’re not going to refuse entry to a U.S. citizen, but if they don’t have one of those documents they have to have something else, they’re going to have to find some way to prove to us they’re a U.S. citizen,” Levin said. “We’re going to be looking for something else to prove who you are…Your travel could very well be delayed while you prove it.”

Major investment

The WHTI was put into law as a result of a 2004 Act of Congress meant to help prevent terrorism. Air and water crossings were affected first, and land crossings were affected in the final stages.

People who carry WHTI-approved documents actually help speed the crossing process, Levin said, while people who require further verification of their status contribute to overall delays. Because the WHTI-approved documents contain machine-readable parts, the crossers’ information is brought up automatically.

The majority of border crossers do carry WHTI-approved documents or a combination of documents that allow them to cross without extra delays, Levin said.

As for Castillo, he has a simple explanation for why he doesn’t use a passport to cross: money. It currently costs a total of $135 for a first-time passport book or $55 total for a passport card.

To get a passport for himself and for his young daughters once they are old enough would be a substantial investment, Castillo said.

Even so, and despite the hassle-free crossings he’s experienced so far, Castillo said he’ll probably get a passport card in the near future.

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