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Mexican Border and the New Passport Rules

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to the southern border, NPR's Ted Robbins is in Tucson. He visited the port of entry at Nogales, Arizona. And Ted, what's the situation along the U.S./Mexico border?

TED ROBBINS: Well, Melissa, the numbers are very different. Take the 75 million yearly crossings on the Canadian border or even the 87 million air travelers and triple it. Two hundred thirty-four million travelers crossed the southern border last fiscal year, so you can see the potential for problems here is magnified.

BLOCK: And again, the passport requirement for land travelers will not take effect, at least for now, right?

ROBBINS: That's correct. For at least a year, nothing's going to change here.

(Soundbite of traffic)

ROBBINS: At the port of entry in downtown Nogales, it was the usual steady stream of vehicles approaching U.S. customs booths. Drivers are mostly Mexican, and they usually hand over a U.S.-issued secure border crossing card, commonly called a laser visa. Agents swipe it like a credit card. If there's nothing suspicious, the agent asks in Spanish where the driver is heading.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)?

Unidentified Man #2:: Phoenix.

Unidentified Man #1: Phoenix? (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language).

ROBBINS: Inside the Nogales pedestrian crossing, people stand in lines. There are a lot more Americans here, people who parked and then walked into Mexico for lunch, to buy cheap medicine, cigarettes or alcohol.

Unidentified Man #3: Hello.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi.

Unidentified Man #3: United States citizen?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yup.

Unidentified Man #3: What are you bringing bank, ma'am?

Unidentified Woman #1: Well, I had two bottles of tequila. Now I have one because I dropped it.

Unidentified Man #3: You dropped one, huh?

Unidentified Woman #1: And those are dishes, and I have (unintelligible).

ROBBINS: That's it. She enters the country. Right now and for at least the next year while the passport requirement is delayed, U.S. citizens entering here need no identification. Brian Levin of Customs and Border Protection says entry is pretty much up to the agent at the port.

Mr. LEVIN (Customs and Border Protection): The only requirement is that you verbally declare your citizenship to us. If there's any doubt on our part that you're a U.S. citizen, then we'll ask you for proof.

ROBBINS: The people in line at Nogales don't seem to realize that. Every U.S. citizen approaching the customs desk presents an ID without being asked, mostly drivers' licenses from all over.

Unidentified Man #4: (Border Agent, Nogales, Arizona): You're from Georgia?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes.

BLOCK: Ted, it sounds like a lot of these Americans crossing the Mexico border have gotten used to showing ID even if they didn't have to.

ROBBINS: Right. I mean, they are used to showing it at airports, everybody is, and so it seems they're used to showing it at land security checkpoints whether they need to or not. So when the new requirement goes into effect along the Mexican border, I guess travelers will just have to shell out some of the money they spend on prescription drugs or tequila for a passport.

BLOCK: NPR's Ted Robbins in Tucson. Thanks very much.

ROBBINS: My pleasure, Melissa.

BLOCK: And if you're still confused about the new passport regulations, we have a list of what documents you need to travel where at our Web site, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ted Robbins
As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.