The home of the brave may soon become the land of the fee. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is drafting a plan to charge people who enter the United States on foot or by car.
The proposal, which is still on the drawing board, already has infuriated critics lining up like weekend travelers at the Tijuana border crossing."That's a hell of a way to balance their budget," scoffs Mario Moreno, regional counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Charging fees at the border is not the way to take care of the gross mismanagement of the INS."
Says Jill Scheldrup, state and local programs manager for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "It would appear that it would create yet another barrier to persons coming into this country."
The experimental plan was included in a Justice Department appropriations measure passed by Congress earlier this year. It calls for the INS to conduct a three-year test of charging fees at congested border crossings.
Last year, 429,028,310 residents and aliens were admitted to the United States through official ports of entry, the INS says. The numbers do not include those who entered the country illegally.
In Washington state alone, nearly 25 million people, including 18 million aliens, passed through the state's 18 points of entry. The most congested crossing is Blaine, Wash., which borders Vancouver, Canada. More than 11 million people crossed into the United States through Blaine in 1989.
Many of the busiest checkpoints have experienced a sharp increase in traffic in recent years. The seemingly endless lines of idling cars during holiday weekends at the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing is a Southern California legend.
The money generated by the fees would be used to pay for more INS agents and facilities with the goal of cutting down on congestion. At the end of the three-year period, a decision will be made on whether to continue or expand the fee project.
Duke Austin, INS spokesman, is quick to point out that fees for entering the United States are not new. For several years the INS and the Customs Service have been adding a $5 surcharge on international plane tickets to pay for inspections. There are also several toll bridges connecting the United States with Canada and with Mexico.
"The motivation for doing this is we have impacted areas on our northern and southern borders where there are huge backlogs, unacceptable backlogs," Austin says. Absent additional funding from the federal government, "How do you put new resources there?"
Austin says the INS is looking at various options for putting the fee program into place, and that the plan should be ready to present to Congress sometime in January.