DERBY LINE, Vermont (Reuters) - The United States has tightened security with Canada in its northeast corner to the dismay of businesses and residents accustomed to crossing the world's longest undefended border with little more than a wave of a hand or a flash of a driver's license.
Since last week, most travelers from Canada are being required to show identification and submit to background checks at U.S. border posts in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, said Ted Woo, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman in Boston.
"It's such a shock to all of us here," said Florence Joyal, 68, who works the cash register in a general store in the Vermont village of Derby Line, whose Main Street leads straight into the Canadian province of Quebec.
"Before, you didn't even show your ID to cross the border."
Porous in vast stretches and often invisible, America's 5,500-mile (8,900-km) border with Canada is drawing closer scrutiny after President Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed in March to work together on border security.
The tougher screening was confined to New England and did not represent new U.S. policy, said Woo.
"In the past, if an individual came across the border their IDs would be checked. But there wouldn't be a cross-referencing of 100 percent of those people into our databases," said Woo, whose Boston office oversees about 40 border checkpoints in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.
"We're trying to increase border security," he said.
While Washington focuses on illegal immigration on the volatile U.S. southern border, a sophisticated drug-smuggling tunnel discovered last year between Vancouver and Seattle and the 1999 arrest of the "millennium bomber" on Canada's western border highlight concerns about the northern boundary.
The tougher scrutiny of travelers slowed border traffic to a crawl on Canada's May 22 Victoria Day holiday, frustrating not only Canadians but also U.S. businesses near the border which had expected Canadians to crowd into stores armed with a currency at its strongest level against the dollar since 1978.
Some angry business owners telephoned their state senator or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to complain after the delays hurt sales, said Dennis Michaud, executive director of the Greater Madawaska Chamber of Commerce in Maine.
Since then, the checks have been streamlined so people who cross the border multiple times in a day undergo only one background check to reduce congestion, Woo said. He said the checks would continue but the delays would be reduced.
CARS TURNING BACK
"We did notice vehicles turning around at the border crossing because it was just too long of a wait," said Michaud. "But they seem to have come back when the line was shorter ... we have seen the lines ease up in the past few days," he added.
The tougher security comes amid growing opposition to U.S. rules that would require passports or sophisticated ID cards to enter the United States from Canada from January 1, 2008.
Five Canadian provinces and the six New England states agreed this month to work together to postpone the legislation, which Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (news, bio, voting record) has called a "train wreck on the horizon for the northern border."
Some fear the rules could drive a wedge between border communities that are culturally and economically entwined, and strain the world's biggest trading relationship by slowing the $1.2 billion in trade flowing each day across the border.
"I worry that it will greatly reduce the number of Canadians who come to the United States," said Roland Roy, 60, who owns Brown's Drug Store in Derby Line, a town of 796 people whose library straddles the border with parking for Canadians on one side and Americans on the other.
"After September 11, many people were fearful of crossing the border and then you add this to it and that fear is multiplied," he said. "When I grew up, Customs basically didn't exist. You just crossed. It's getting stricter and stricter."
More than 300,000 people travel between the United States and Canada each day. Only about 20 percent of U.S. citizens and 40 percent of Canadians hold passports, which cost nearly $100. The U.S.-proposed PASS cards would cost about half that price.