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 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.
The Tijuana-San Diego border is considered the world’s busiest international crossing. In the most recent fiscal year, some 50 million people entered U.S. territory via that port of entry; most were aboard 13 million vehicles.
Any plans to institute a border entry fee would likely stir harsh criticism in the San Diego-Tijuana area, which, like other border regions, is heavily dependant on trans-national commerce.
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. Congress then has 60 days to review it. As it stands now, it appears the INS will create a toll “express lane” at as yet undetermined border crossings. Other lanes would remain free.
Still undecided, Austin said, is how exactly to collect the fee and whether to offer a monthly pass for migrant workers and other frequent crossers.
But Moreno and others fear the program will ultimately lead to a regressive tax on anyone entering or leaving the country. Such fees would be an economic hardship on poor migrant workers and border town businesses.
Some praise the idea as a way to keep America’s often chaotic border situation under control. “We think it’s a marvelous and outstanding idea whose time has come,” said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The group has long been a supporter of strict control of border areas and “user fees” for entry into the United States.