Ridiculing US Official Just Made Your Border Wait Longer We overreacted to Napolitano’s gaffe. Why we’ll pay for it – By Edward Alden
After years of frustration dealing with the George W. Bush administration over the tightening of the border, Canadian officials were hoping for better under President Barack Obama. It does not appear to be working out quite as planned.
Obama’s homeland security secretary, former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, caused a furor last week when she suggested in a CBC interview that some of the 9-11 terrorists had entered the United States from Canada, and therefore stricter border measures were necessary. The statement threw the Canadian government and media into apoplexy. It seemed to confirm the always compelling storyline that Canada is once again being “harassed” by an ignorant American officialdom eager to blame its northern neighbour for its own mistakes. The National Post dismissed her as “irrational” and the commissioner of the RCMP declared himself “surprised and somewhat disappointed that the secretary isn’t better informed.”
Little matter that Napolitano’s slip should rightly be considered a gaffe. “I knew the minute it came out of my mouth it was wrong,” she said later. Neil Macdonald, the veteran CBC reporter who caught her out, set her up perfectly. The secretary, defending American plans to impose new document requirements at the border this June, noted quite accurately that “to the extent that terrorists have come into our country or suspected or known terrorists have entered our country across a border, it’s been across the Canadian border. There are real issues there. ”
“Are you talking about the 9-11 perpetrators?” MacDonald asked, dangling the noose. “Not just those, but others as well,” said Napolitano. Drop the words “just” and “as well” and she would have been home free.
Instead, the furor that has erupted is certain to poison efforts by the two governments to cooperate over border issues at a time when it is critically important to deal with festering problems. Washington is set in June to require passports or other secure documents from everyone — Canadians and Americans — crossing into the United States, Napolitano made it clear she will not reconsider that deadline.
Get ready to wait, and wait
The biggest effects will be on Americans travelling north into Canada. Fewer than 10 per cent of Americans living near the border have passports, and getting one is costly and time-consuming. Several states — Washington, Michigan and New York — are developing more secure drivers’ licences that can be used for border crossing, but very few have been issued to date. Enrollment in the Nexus program to speed cross-border shopping remains disappointingly small.
For Canadians going south, it is hard to see how it can get much worse. A recent study by the Border Policy Research Institute at the University of Western Washington in Bellingham produced some striking figures. Researchers examined southbound vehicle traffic at the three main B.C.-Washington border crossing (Blaine, Sumas and Lynden) dating back to 1985. Historically, they concluded, southbound traffic rose when the Canadian dollar was strong and Canadians headed south to shop, and fell when the dollar was weak.
The biggest volumes — close to two million travelers for each three-month period — were in the early 1990s when the Canadian dollar hovered near 90 cents U.S. That had fallen to a low of a just over one million visits each quarter by the late 1990s, when the dollar fell below 70 cents and Bellis Fair was no longer much of a bargain.
After 9-11, however, that historic relationship between exchange rates and travel volumes was ruptured. Even in early 2008, when the loonie was briefly worth more than the greenback, the numbers never exceeded 800,000. As the project’s researchers concluded: “A structural break in the relationship between economic conditions and travel volumes occurred in 2001 and has since persisted. People’s discomfort with new inspections processes at the border is the likely cause of low travel volumes.”
Walling towns in half
For officials on both sides of the world’s largest trading relationship along what was once the world’s longest undefended border, such trends should be deeply disturbing. And they aren’t too pleasant for the millions of Americans and Canadians who live near the border either. In the town of Derby Line/Standstead, which literally straddles the border between Vermont and Quebec, U.S. Border Patrol agents are planning to construct fences to cut the town in half. Up for grabs is the public library, which spans both sides of the border. In the interim, U.S. agents are promising to be flexible in guarding the invisible line: “If a kid [on the Canada side] throws a Frisbee over here, he can come and get it,” the local Border Patrol chief told the Washington Post. “But if he got the Frisbee and kept walking down to the Arby’s to get a soda, we’re going to stop him.”
Such twisted formulations clearly cry out for some direction from Washington and Ottawa. But none has come since the early months following the 9-11 attacks, and the spat between Napolitano and the Canadian establishment does not augur well for any improvements.
Right after 9-11, as I show in detail in my recent book The Closing of the American Border, the Canadian and U.S. governments collaborated on a series of “smart border” initiatives that seemed to provide a blueprint for how to manage borders in the face of the terrorist threat. As Napolitano certainly knows now, not a single one of the 9-11 terrorists came from Canada; all arrived in the U.S. on airplanes with legal visas stamped by the U.S. State Department.
Canadians, don’t be smug
But Canada hardly had clean hands. Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian who intended to destroy the Los Angeles airport, exploited weaknesses in Canada’s asylum system to plot his operation and was only stopped after a U.S. Customs agent in Port Angeles searched his car and found the trunk filled with explosives. Several others living in Canada were part of that plot. Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, who was sentenced to life in prison for a 1997 plot to detonate a nail bomb on the New York subway, snuck across the Canadian border into the U.S., where he was caught and then released by U.S. officials pending a court date for entering illegally.
Short URL: http://tinyurl.com/yzbd8o9