The United States and Canada share the longest undefended border in the world. The two countries have been discussing ways to harmonize immigration laws and security on their border. Those talks have taken on new urgency in the wake of September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
The shared U.S. Canadian border stretches 4,800 kilometers. Two hundred million travelers cross it every year, as do $360 billion in trade goods.
Since 1994, a trade treaty called NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, has linked Canada, the United States and Mexico. Senior officials from the three countries started talking this past summer about "NAFTA Plus." The proposed expansion of the agreement would further integrate continental trade by reducing crossing times at the border and allowing the free flow of goods and services through checkpoints. But attention on both sides of the border has now shifted from trade to security, and added security has slowed crossing times even further.
Many are hoping that within the near future, Canada and the United States will take the next step to sharing immigration and customs operations around the world, harmonizing their laws in these areas.
One of them is Greg Boos, an immigration lawyer in Bellingham, Washington, near the U.S. Canadian border on the West Coast. He says better cooperation along the border is essential, but to be done effectively, the two countries need what he calls a "perimeter strategy", where coordinated immigration and custom laws make entering one country the same as entering both. "Canada and the United States need to work together to screen people before they get on airplanes in Europe and Asia for a terroris background. Actually, Canada and the United States could combine their databases on terrorism. They could staff the pre clearance facilities together. I think that's a long ways off, but I think what happened on September 11 as we recognize we need that now," he says.
On the Canadian side of the border, the President of the Public Policy Forum, David Zussman agrees. "The events now sort of focus our attention away from economic activities to security ones. And although the issues remain probably very much the same, the prism or the lens that this will be looked at is probably a little bit different now. In other words, we're now going to be more preoccupied with people and security - particularly the security of the United States. And we'll be less pre-occupied with the movement of goods," he says.
The threat of terrorists entering the United States from Canada is real. Convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty in April of conspiring to commit an act of international terrorism. He was arrested trying to enter Washington State from a ferryboat that originated in Victoria, Canada. He was found with almost sixty kilograms of explosives in the trunk of his car. Ressam later testified that he was planning to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.
Gene Davis is a retired Deputy-Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol in Blaine, Washington. He favors better cooperation between Canada and the United States. He says during his time with the Border Patrol, the agency encountered terrorists a number of times. This included Abu Mezer, who failed to cross the western border three times but was eventually shot by New York police while trying to bomb the city's subway. "Over the last number of years, when I was still with the border patrol in Blaine, we had four separate incidents involving terrorists. Two of them, one that in 1996 an individual was getting ready to bomb the New York subway that was shot by the New York Police Department before he had an opportunity of doing that. And of course, in December of '99 we had the situation with Ressam who had entered the United States through Canada and his way to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport," he says. "So certainly, this has been a problem in the past."
Jim Phillips is the President of the CanAm Border Trade Alliance, an organization that aims to unify both countries on border issues. He said despite the terrorist threat, the overwhelming majority of people and goods crossing the border are legitimate. But he does not believe that binational cooperation will result in the elimination of the border, as is the case in Europe.
"I think that you're going to find out that 99 percent of people can cross without problems, someday, not too far away. But, it's not going to be elimination of the border. I do not see the total elimination of the border like Europe. And I'll tell you why. I think there are, you've got intellectual property problems. [You have] firearms situations. I once was quoted and I think I'm right, if you totally eliminated the border without making equivalent steps, you would have more guns in Canada in the first month than the entire armed services of the Canadian Forces have," he says.
Increased security at the border has slowed crossing times, and many feel that shared intelligence and harmonizing immigration regulations between Canada and the United States is now more important than ever.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has adopted a cautious approach. He says existing security arrangements and proposed legislation will take care of the issue for now. "We will pass Canadian laws for Canadian situations. And this is an occasion we have a law on immigration that has been passed by parliament and received Royal Assent last week. And we're working on a security bill now,it's in front of committee. My view is that Canada will be as secure as the United States. But they'll do it their way and we'll do it our way," he says.
Many of Canada's politicians, like Mr. Chretien,see the discussion as a politically controversial issue of sovereignty. However, news reports here in Canada say that an agreement is in progress between the two countries to share information and establish joint overseas checkpoints at 77 different airports. Travelers would be checked out before boarding flights headed to North America.
Balancing the cross border movement of trade while maintaining security will be difficult. Canada and the United States are each another's largest trading partner, and tens of thousands of trade-related jobs are on the line. People on both sides say if border security issues are not dealt with carefully, the current economic downturn will only deepen in both countries, giving a victory to the terrorists of the attacks on September 11.