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Published April 30 2013

Rep. Cramer, West Acres CEO among critics of proposed border-crossing fee

FARGO – Andrew Chan, of Winnipeg, fidgeted with his smartphone as he waited for his friends to finish browsing the Best Buy Mobile store at West Acres mall.

The trio of University of Manitoba students drove to Fargo for a concert. It’s a trip Chan said he makes two to three times a year.

But if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s idea to begin charging a border-crossing fee for people entering the country by land from Canada and Mexico becomes a reality, Chan said he may scale back his visits.

“If it’s just like a weekend shopping trip, it would deter me,” he said.

On Monday, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., joined 18 other members of Congress in signing a letter asking Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to reject a proposal in the department’s 2014 budget to study charging the fee.

The bipartisan group contends the fee, which doesn’t have a dollar amount attached to it yet, will harm border communities that depend on cross-border travel and commerce with the country’s largest trading partner.

“The imposition of such a toll would act as a barrier to the greater economic integration that we seek, and is the absolute last thing we should be doing to grow our economy,” the letter states. “It would be a waste of government resources to even study the flawed idea.”

Cramer, who served as North Dakota’s tourism director from 1993 to 1997, recalled in an interview Tuesday how the disincentive of a bad exchange rate would dissuade Canadians from heading south to spend their dollars.

“Now, I can’t imagine why we would impose a government or federal disincentive for Canadian travelers to come to the United States,” he said.

Cramer, who serves as co-chairman of the Northern Border Caucus, also expressed concern that imposing a toll could possibly trigger a corresponding fee for Americans wishing to visit Canada.

Brad Schlossman, CEO of West Acres Development, which owns the West Acres mall, called a border crossing fee “a horrible idea,” comparing it to charging people at the mall’s front doors for the right to go shopping.

“It’s not the way the rest of the developed world treats its guests,” he said.

Fees don’t cover costs

Under Homeland Security’s proposed budget, Customs and Border Protection would first explore the feasibility of collecting border fees from existing operators such as bridge commissions, toll operators and commercial passenger buses and trains.

The agency also intends to conduct a pilot project to test the steps necessary to collect those fees.

The final step would look at how to handle fees for pedestrians and passenger vehicles at land border crossings.

The U.S. government already collects various fees from travelers entering the country by air, land or sea.

For example, the Visa Waiver Program, which allows visitors to enter the country for business or pleasure for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa, carries a $6 fee.

The Canadian Boat Landing Permit program charges $16 for an individual or $32 for a family so they can report their arrival into the U.S. by phone, without having to appear at a port of entry for an in-person inspection.

Customs and Border Protection also has a “trusted traveler” program called NEXUS, a joint effort with the Canada Border Services Agency that allows pre-screened, approved travelers faster processing at designated northern ports of entry, Canadian pre-clearance airports and marine reporting sites. The fee is $50 every five years.

Customs and Border Protection uses the border inspection fees to pay for the salaries of CBP officers, as well as operational and maintenance costs.

But current fees don’t generate enough revenue to reimburse all expenses related to inspections at land border crossings, forcing CBP to tap into its annual appropriation from Congress to make up the difference, according to the budget overview.

Communities affected

In their letter to Napolitano, lawmakers argue that homeland security and border protection are national priorities that benefit the entire country.

“Their cost should not be disproportionately borne by our communities, which should not be singled out and asked to do so,” the letter states.

Schlossman estimated that the percentage of mall shoppers who come from Canada is probably in the lower single digits.

However, “In terms of dollars, it would be a higher percentage, because they spend more per visit than the neighbors do,” he said.

North Dakota already offers Canada residents a refund of state sales tax paid on certain purchases, Cramer noted.

“So we’re trying to attract travelers with our tax policy in North Dakota, and now the federal government is looking at doing just the opposite,” he said.

Chan’s travel companions, Julia Vuong and Wesley Chan, both said that without knowing how much the crossing fee would be, it’s hard to say how it would affect their travel tendencies.

Schlossman would rather not have to find out.

“Let’s hope this one dies quickly,” he said.

With bipartisan opposition in both chambers of Congress, Cramer is confident it will.

“I don’t think it has a chance,” he said.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528