New anti-terrorism laws and tighter immigration controls along U.S. borders often have translated into frustrating delays and lost revenue. Immigration activists are advocating a more creative approach to border security to avoid cutting the United States off economically and diplomatically from its neighbors to the north and south.
More than 489 million people crossed U.S. borders last year alone. More than 130 million cars and trucks passed through border points. More than 11 million sea containers arrived or left from U.S. ports, not to mention all the air and rail traffic.
Since the attacks of September 11, new anti-terrorism laws have toughened security measures and inspections at land borders, airports, and shipping terminals. But long delays for people and goods crossing borders has translated into revenue losses for transnational companies, shippers and border-dependent services.
Security analyst Stephen Flynn of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations says the disruption of cross-border traffic plays into the hands of the terrorists. "Terrorist intent is essentially to create societal and economic disruption that leads to erosion of the economy, of the power of the society in order to force a re-examination of policy," he says.
Canadian immigration counselor Bill Sheppit agrees on the urgent need to unfreeze vital trade routes. He points out that Canada alone accounts for more than $1 billion worth of cross-border trade and is considered the top trading partner for 38 U.S. states.
"The model we saw immediately after September 11 were there were waits of many hours, if not days, and line-ups of up to 25 miles long crossing the Canada-U.S. border. Businesses closed as far away as Wisconsin and Kentucky because of delays in Detroit," he said.
Security experts acknowledge there are just not enough people or resources to speed the border inspection process to keep people and goods moving quickly.
Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute says agencies dealing with border security, from immigration and customs to police or the FBI, have to look at better ways to do the job.
"Each bureaucracy should basically look within itself and analyze each one of its functions along four lines. First, must each of its functions be done only at the border? Second, what is the cost and benefit of doing that function at the border versus doing it elsewhere. Third, can any of its functions be performed by an inspector from a sister agency? And fourth, can any of the functions be performed after proper negotiations by an inspector from another country? What would happen if a Canadian actually okayed a shipment with all the necessary protections?" he says.
Immigration and security analysts say the Bush administration's call for increased cross-border cooperation as part of homeland security is a step in the right direction but more needs to be done. They say the anti-terrorism campaign will depend less on visible security at border crossings and more on the less-visible work with neighboring governments on intelligence-gathering and law enforcement.