August 13, 2002 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
Security never used to be much of a concern along the
The requirements to cross -- show your driver's license and
answer a couple of questions -- were minimal. For Canadians like me
who enjoyed cross-border shopping before our dollar fell, it was a
slight annoyance, nothing more.
But this laid-back approach is yet another victim of Sept. 11.
America's northern border is now viewed as a serious
It's not just plausible that terrorists could enter Canada and
slip into the United States undetected. It's fact. In September
1999, Ahmed Ressam did exactly that.
Shortly after crossing into Washington state, Ressam, a graduate
of Osama bin Laden's terror camps, was arrested with explosives and
bomb-making materials in the trunk of his car. About the same time,
another terrorist transporting similar materials was arrested after
crossing into Vermont.
There are two ways to solve this problem: Drastically increase border scrutiny for all southbound traffic entering the United States, or convince Canada to be more rigorous in keeping out potentially hostile visitors.
The first solution is unacceptable. More than $1.4 billion in
goods crosses the U.S.-Canadian border daily. It's the largest
bilateral flow of trade goods anywhere. Anyone who attempted to
cross the border immediately after Sept. 11 will tell you of the
huge delays and the enormous lineups at every border station.
If such a stringent border security arrangement became
permanent, it would have devastating economic consequences. Yet
both governments seem inclined to take this path, as evidenced by
Homeland Security Director Thomas Ridge's "30-Point Plan" on border
security, unveiled in Ottawa last spring.
A far better solution is for Canada to make its immigration
Terrorists, you see, don't sneak into Canada. They don't have
to. In many cases, they're allowed in, even welcomed. Canada has
become known as an easy place for terrorist groups to operate. The
nation's own Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) admitted in 1999
that "Canada's immigration system … is vulnerable to
exploitation and abuse" and then stated in its 2002 annual report
that "almost all of the world's terrorist groups have a presence in
Canada allows anyone entering the country to claim refugee
status the moment he or she arrives. In America, the claimant is
held in custody until refugee status is established and background
checks completed. In Canada, the claimant is released and told to
file a claim within 30 days, at which time a status hearing is
While waiting, claimants receive welfare, housing for up to
three years and legal and medical assistance, according to William
Bauer, former member of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board.
Given that Canada has a backlog of 30,000 cases, they can wait
quite a while.
Moreover, serious crimes -- even murder -- don't affect the
refugee status of someone with a pending claim. Ressam, for
instance, was convicted of theft of more than $5,000 while he
awaited his hearing, with no effect on his status.
His claim was eventually denied, but he never was deported. Why?
"We cannot put somebody on a plane and out of the country unless we
have travel documents, and that's a big challenge," Canadian
Minister of Immigration Elinor Caplan has said. "People who come
here and are avoiding detection don't cooperate."
As a result, not many people are sent packing. In 1996, for
instance, Canada deported 4,732. Out of 30,000 refugee applicants,
this figure may seem reasonable -- until one considers that nearly
as many were denied refugee status but not deported.
New Canadian legislation designed to address the terrorist
refugee problem would deny serious criminals access to the refugee
system. It defines a serious criminal as someone who has spent 10
years or more in prison outside of Canada or two years in Canadian
prisons. All other convicted criminals would remain eligible.
Canada must do more. It should detain all refugee claimants
until backgrounds are checked and claims adjudicated. It must keep
tabs on pending claimants released into the public and legislate a
realistic deportation system.
Canada should be embarrassed to pose a security threat to our
closest ally and political friend. I hope to never need a visa to
visit my American friends, and I know I never would need one if
sensible immigration laws can be enacted. Increasing border
security is a Band-Aid solution with a triple-bypass price tag. As
long as terrorists can get into Canada and operate there easily, no
amount of border security will keep either country safe.
Andy Webb, a senior at the University of New Brunswick, is an intern at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.