August 13, 2002 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

ED081302: Bordering on the Ridiculous

Security never used to be much of a concern along the U.S.-Canadian border.

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 vulnerability.

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 policies tougher.

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."

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 scheduled.

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.

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