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Border Delays Feared as Visas Expire

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officials along the U.S.-Mexico border, already grappling with unprecedented traffic backups, braced Friday for more disruption because of the expiration of perhaps 1.5 million permits that allow border residents from Mexico to come north to shop, visit relatives and see the doctor.

The cards--a staple of border life from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego--were to be replaced by “laser visas” by Sunday night. But many residents have yet to replace the old cards, creating the possibility that thousands will show up holding an outdated visa.

“We’re trying the best we can to put the word out on the border that these things won’t be any good, so please, please, don’t even come,” said Tomas Zuniga, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s regional office for Texas and New Mexico.

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It is possible Congress will extend the deadline, and immigration officials were seeking last-minute ways to avert the lapse.

Meanwhile, INS officials said border inspectors plan to turn away those holding expired cards except in emergencies or for those holders whose renewals already have been approved.

Authorities worried that confusion over the cards will create further tangles at entry points operating under terrorism alerts. Because many truckers who ferry freight to the U.S. carry border-crossing cards, there was concern that commercial ports of entry will be especially snarled.

“We’re preparing for the worst,” Zuniga said.

The permits allow border residents to travel inside a 25-mile zone in the United States for up to three days. Recipients must prove their border residency and show that they’ve held a job for a year. The cards do not permit employment in the United States.

The impending deadline spelled more bad news for U.S. border communities, which have seen commerce fall since recent increased security measures have slowed northbound crossings to a crawl.

Spending on the U.S. side by holders of the border-crossing cards is “super-important for border communities,” said Dennis Bixler-Marquez, director of Chicano studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Border communities have entire sections that are heavily dependent” on them.

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Larry Norton, who with his brother owns three apparel stores near the border in Laredo, Texas, said sales already have dropped 30% to 40% because of concerns over terrorism and the heightened searches at the border.

“Anything that keeps the customers from coming over here is going to hurt business,” he said. Norton said about two-thirds of his clients are from Mexico.

The deadline for exchanging the old immigration cards for laser visas, issued by the U.S. State Department, was extended once in 1999.

It is unclear how many people carry the old card. There were an estimated 5.5 million in circulation in 1996, when Congress mandated the change. The biggest concentration of cardholders was in Ciudad Juarez, along the Texas border. But 4 million laser visas have been dispensed since then as replacements and as first-time issues. Many former holders may have died or moved from the border and no longer need the card, said Christopher Lamora, spokesman for the State Department’s Consular Affairs Bureau.

Bixler-Marquez said many Mexican residents put off getting the new card because of the $45 cost. “A lot of people come over to buy used clothes by the pound, so $45 is a lot of money,” he said.

U.S. officials say procrastination also played a role. Applicants must sign up for an interview a month or so ahead of time but can get renewed on the spot. It takes a few weeks to get new cards made.

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“Everybody waited until the very last minute,” said Lorena Blanco, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, where a special center was set up to handle applications for the laser visas.

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