Cheryl-Anne Ingram(left) and her grandmother Katherine Curry-Meria apply for a passport with agent Mickie Honrado at the Pacificia post office
Cheryl-Anne Ingram(left) and her grandmother Katherine Curry-Meria apply for a passport with agent Mickie Honrado at the Pacificia post office Saturday,March 31,2007. The pair are planning to attend a family reunion in Germany. later in the summer (John Green/San Mateo County Times)
PACIFICA — Corinne Monge likes to travel to Mexico, but has an expired passport.

Until this year, she wouldn't have needed one, but tightened border security had this Pacifica resident standing in line on a sunny Saturday morning at a post office here to ensure she can quickly plan a cruise vacation hassle-free.

When she gets her new document in several weeks, she'll be joining the ranks of Americans carrying ultra secure passports, complete with embedded chips, aimed at foiling attempts by terrorists and others with criminal intent from gaining entry into the country.

For years, U.S. citizens entering the country from Canada or Mexico by air could just verbally declare their country of origin, and that sufficed for Customs and Border Patrol agents, so long as the declaration sounded sincere.

But based on a recommendation of the 9/11Commission, Congress in 2004 passed a law requiring the departments of State and Homeland Security to devise a practical way to screen everyone entering the country, even U.S. citizens visiting Canada, Mexico or Central America.

The stepped-up security ends a wide-open security breach, in which someone with a bogus driver's license and birth certificate could get in.

By 2006 the agencies had their plan, which they made effective Jan. 23.

This initial phase applies to air travelers. By Jan. 1, 2008, the federal agencies expect to have a system in place also to require passports from everyone entering the county by land or water, including U.S. citizens. Visitors to and from U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam are exempt.

The government says the system is working smoothly. By Jan. 24, 99 percent of air passengers entering the country had passports. For those that didn't, customs agents followed a "flexible enforcement" policy, which allowed them to examine other documentation to adequately confirm a person's identity and country of origin. However, this step takes significantly longer than simply checking a passport, the State Department emphasized.

People wait in line for a passport during the passport fair at the Pacificia post office Saturday,March 31,2007. The fair was organized to get the word out
People wait in line for a passport during the passport fair at the Pacificia post office Saturday,March 31,2007. The fair was organized to get the word out about new changes in passport regulations and to make sure people plan ahead when applying. (John Green/San Mateo County Times)

With the 2004 law, Congress also requires that new passports include high-tech upgrades, such as an embedded chip containing the passport holder's name, address, date and place of birth, and a digital photo. The chip can be read by a remote device via radio frequency identification technology.

The chip also contains a digital signature that verifies it was issued by the federal government.

The chip is designed to speed up processing at points of entry to the United States, in addition to significantly increasing security, in comparison to current passports. (Those with current passports can use them until they expire.)

But the electronic device also has privacy advocates alarmed, particularly since the chips can be read remotely, as opposed to only being read by close contact with a scanning device.

Privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation fear that anyone with strong intent to read travelers' digital information could devise a system to do so. A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union predicted that more travelers will be wrapping their passports in aluminum foil as a measure to prevent identity theft.

Those concerns were far from the minds of the dozen or so people standing in line at Pacifica's main post office Saturday morning, or to a man in his 20s strolling by, who asked if passports were being issued inside.

"I might be going to Canada," he said, clearly pleased at finding a convenient way to get his passport. He was on his cell phone advising a friend with travel plans to get to the post office.

The demand for passports has, predictably, risen sharply. The federal government issued a record 12.1 million passports in fiscal year 2006, according to the State Department. This year, an expected 16 million will be issued.

Currently, 74 million Americans, or 28 percent of the population, now possess a current passport. The new passport requirement, the State Department added, also applies to children.

To help meet the growing demand, the U.S. Postal Service has increased the visibility and availability of its passport program. It now holds "Passport Fairs" around the state on Saturdays, advertised by fliers mailed to residents.

"We hold them on Saturday, when they're not working," said Curtis Fisher, acting postmaster for the Pacifica Post Office. When the office opened at

9 a.m., 25 people were waiting in line, most to avoid the time and trouble of driving to San Francisco to get a passport from a federal agency.

The Postal Service adds a $30 surcharge to the $67 passport application fee. For $15, it also will take passport photos on the premises.

"The passport program was never as popular as it is now," said one of the four Postal Service workers handling the steady line of visitors on Saturday.

For further information, contact the State Department at http://www.travel.state.gov or by calling (877) 487-2778 or TDD/TTY at (888) 874-7793. To learn about the U.S. Postal Service passport program, visit http://www.usps.com/passport or call (800) ASK-USPS.

Contact Suzanne Bohan at

(650) 348-4324 or sbohan@angnewspapers.com.