The five-year anniversary since the attacks of September 11, 2001, is fast approaching and a number of security related initiatives have been implemented between Canada and the United States. The following is a review of some of these developments.
The Canada-US border is often touted as the “Longest Undefended Border in the World”. While this remains true, this statement has generally been based on the philosophy in the 20th century that saw the border in terms of the opportunity for trade, more than anything else. But this view has, since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, dramatically changed. Now, attitudes and policies towards the border revolve almost entirely around security concerns, and these issues are having a drastic effect on how the border is operated. While policymakers insist they are trying to impede travel as little as possible, the reality of such policies could create significant difficulties for the 300,000 Americans and Canadians that cross the border each day. While the Canadian government might have little influence as to how the US dictates its border policy, there is much that can be done in terms of easing and preparing Canadians into the new requirements, as well as suggesting and promoting creative solutions that would address the security requirements while keeping the process of crossing the border hassle-free.
The Canada-US border had never seriously been considered a security risk before 9-11. Canadians were able to enter the US with a driver’s license or a birth certificate for quite some time. Considerable steps to improve the border to promote business and facilitate access were put in place in 1989, when the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement came into being. This, along with its successor NAFTA, allowed Canadians unprecedented access privileges to the US. Canadians were afforded greater access to employment in the US, and the applications for work permits under NAFTA could be granted at the border, on site. “Smart Cards” were also introduced on both sides of the border, serving as a means for frequent travelers to enhance assured and quick access. The border at this point was quickly transforming itself to facilitate access between the two countries.
But the attacks of September 11th, 2001 changed this philosophy dramatically. US policymakers have unapologetically stated that security concerns trump business concerns at the border. A large reason for the focus on security is Canada’s reputation in the US as being lax on immigration policy. One could argue that if Canada adopted immigration policy more along the lines of the US’s, increased security requirements at the border would be unnecessary. As it stands, such change remains unlikely in the foreseeable future, and dealing with America’s security concerns will be a reality.
Smart Border Declaration
The first signs of increased protection after 9-11 came quickly, in December 2001, with the “Smart Border” Declaration. Its intention was to “enhance the security of our shared border while facilitating the legitimate flow of people and goods”, but the first aspect was clearly the priority.
A key feature of the declaration was a commitment to implement common biometric standards and technology, which would make Canadian identification easier to process at the border, due to increased confidence on the part of the US in Canadian identification methods. (Biometrics involve having an individuals physical characteristics, such as facial features and fingerprints, encoded digitally for measurement) This commitment was reinforced in December 2003, when new permanent resident cards were issued in Canada that fall much more in line American standards. The NEXUS system to ease access for pre-approved low risk travelers was also enhanced with Biometric technology, and the number of border crossings that can read such technology is expanding at a rapid pace.
Another important element of the Smart Border Declaration was the Safe Third Country agreement. This agreement effectively changes previous policy on refugee claims whereby immigrants could enter the US on a travel visa and subsequently claim refugee status at the Canadian border. The agreement changes this policy such that refugee claims can only be made in the country of initial entry. This agreement has since cut the number of refugee claims made in Canada by half.
Canada and the US have also established, as part of this declaration, the Passenger Information Sharing System. This allows the two nations to share information about airline travelers, including a calculated “risk score”. Also in development are Joint Passenger Analysis Units, which would screen passengers in advance, using a standard Canadian/American framework.
The final steps of this declaration would involve a merging, to a certain extent, of Canada and America’s border security policies. This is taking place through steps as simple as insuring compatibility of immigration databases, to extensive integration through joint immigration processing facilities, where immigration processing of both countries are undertaken by a joint US and Canadian staff. 6 of these stations currently exist in low-volume points of entry, and consideration is being given to adding more.
In terms of the declaration’s mandate to enhance trade, the two governments have established a program called Free and Secure Trade, or FAST. It is designed to harmonize commercial processing for pre approved individuals crossing the border at 19 designated locations. It works similarly to the previous “smart card” regimes, but has one notable feature: status review and pre-clearance prior to reaching the border. While this has been present in some previous programs such as NEXUS, FAST reviews specific entry issues for pre-screened groups of foreign nationals, and allows for a broader scope of “work” related to commercial trade. A pilot project is also in place to establish “full pre-clearance”. Individuals who would qualify under this program would be able to receive status and customs inspection before actually arriving at the border.
Some in the field of immigration have called such pre-clearance programs the best approach to ensuring hassle free border crossings. Since travel times to the border and wait times at the border can be long, ensuring eligibility to cross beforehand will prevent difficulties that might occur on site, saving time. Pre-clearance will also reduce the amount of time individuals will have to spend at the border, as officers will have less extensive checks to do. The pre-clearance process can still be cumbersome, however, and the electronic pre-screening that some advocate as a tool to enhance ease of entry poses security risks of its own.
The Security and Prosperty Partnership of North America
The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America is a program initiated in the spring of 2005. It is a trilateral agreement between Canada, the US, and Mexico to bolster continental security without hindering the flow of people and goods. It has been suggested that this agreement represents a first step towards a continental security perimeter. Under such a perimeter, the 3 North American Nations would have harmonized security (including immigration and refugee) policies. Every point in North America would be equally tight, and therefore less security would be necessary at the borders between the three countries. This is a main argument for proponents of such a perimeter, but there are several problems that must not be overlooked.
Firstly, there is no guarantee that the United States would ease up border security even given such a perimeter. America’s “layered” approach to security demands that strong border controls remain in place. This would mean that Canada would be losing sovereignty over its security and immigration policy with no guaranteed result. Secondly, bilateral security arrangements such as the Smart Border Accord have been successful at demonstrating Canada’s commitment to security while limiting policy concessions around specific issues at one border. The limited scope of such accords does little to infringe on
sovereignty and do much to assuage the US, and is as such preferable to policymakers and voters alike.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is a recent, much publicized bill adopted by the US Congress. In its initial form, it requires all people crossing the border into the United States to show a passport or “other approved document”. This requirement would be in place by December 31st, 2006, for Sea and Air travel, and December 31st, 2007 for land entry. This would include US citizens leaving the country and then re-entering. This is a point of major concern for Canadian and American businesses that rely significantly on cross-border trade and are used to the simpler requirements of a birth certificate or drivers license.
According to Tourism Canada, only 50% of Americans surveyed who have traveled to Canada for an overnight visit have a passport. Sentiment on both sides of the border from many casual tourists is that it would not be worth the trouble of getting a passport. A study by the Conference Board of Canada estimates that the proposed law will deter some 3.5 million trips into Canada, will cost the Canadian economy around 1.6 billion dollars, and the American economy another 750 million. Already, visits are declining as many tourists are under the belief that passports are already required.
Pressure from US political leaders in the border states have led to the delay of the bill’s provisions for 17 months, to June 1st, 2009. These leaders have demanded more time to put the initiative into action and prepare travelers for the new requirements. Some critics have also expressed that the new rules would hurt commerce without actually improving security.
While Canadian pressure is likely to do little to sway sentiment behind the legislation, the Canadian government can do much to ensure that Canadians are informed about the requirements. Initiatives that could ease the burden of adjustment could be a temporary reduction of passport fees and increased personnel to process them. Also, the Canadian government should ensure that it is able to issue promptly and effectively whatever “other approved document” American authorities might deem acceptable. Currently, it seems like a biometric identification card such as a PASS card might fit this description, but some critics feel that the PASS card is not significantly easier or cheaper to receive than a passport and is limited in that it is only valid at land crossings.
It is apparent to most observers that these measures of tightening security and bringing Canada’s border controls more in line with those of the US are a result of perceptions that Canadian immigration policies are two lax and are a security risk to the US. Canada’s options, then, are to either bring its immigration policy closer in line to that of the US, or deal with increased security and work with the US to harmonize the two nation’s border policies. Given Canada’s vastly different immigration needs, the later option is likely to be the one that remains pervasive in the foreseeable future.