Rethinking security along the U.S.-Canada border

Published 19 April 2010

After 9/11, the United States effectively created a northern border where none had existed before, at least since the late 1800s; this occurred without much big-think strategizing or discussion; people who live along the border say there should be more thinking about how effectively to manage the long border, balancing security and commerce, before a new rounds of security measures is embarked on

When Americans talk about border security, they typically mean the U.S.-Mexico border. There are issues related to life and security along the U.S.-Canada border, however, which those living in U.S. northern precincts argue should be addressed.

Tribal leaders on the Akewsasne-Mohawk reservation, for example, are raising questions about the high-speed boat chase last week that left two tribal members seriously injured. According to the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, a Coast Guard vessel slammed into the men’s boat. They were apparently thrown into the water. No charges have yet been filed, but an investigation continues.

Brian Mann writes in the “In the Box,” a blog run by the Canton, New York-based North Country Public Radio (NCPR), that many people continue to voice serious complaints about the border. At a recent gathering, a local resident with dual citizenship complained to this reporter about being handcuffed in front of her children and detained. Apparently, her name matched that of a suspected fugitive.

One Republican congressional candidate, retired Army Colonel Chris Gibson, who wants to represent the area in Congress, is proposing that we disband the DHS. “We need to consolidate the functions, the oversight functions, from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense,” Gibson says.

Meanwhile, the region is still recovering from the lengthy shutdown of the bridge at Cornwall, which was closed following a dispute between Canadian and tribal officials.

Mann writes that none of these problems serves to eclipse some real progress that has been made at the border in recent years. New facilities and new personnel have made the border more efficient and, arguably, more effective at stopping illegal activity while facilitating trade and other cross-border traffic.

Recent incidents make it clear that more work needs to be done — and more thinking.

After 9/11, the United States effectively created a northern border where none had existed before, at least since the late 1800s. This occurred without much big-think strategizing or discussion, Mann writes. It was a reaction to a frightening and confusing event. “Ten years later, it is important to ask what has been accomplished, what we have gained by the massive expenditure on the border, and what we have lost,” he says.

Is it possible, for example, significantly to limit the amount of smuggling that goes on with contraband and illegal immigrants? Or is the border just too vast, too wild, too porous?

Is it possible to reduce the threat of terrorists using Canada as an entry point and transiting to the United States? Or would it be more effective for the U.S. to partner more closely with Canada’s security agencies to prevent suspects from reaching North America entirely?

Finally, do many of the border measures enacted over the last decade amount to window dressing?

Mann writes that he has spoken with state and Federal officials who remain privately skeptical about northern border security. New security measures cost billions and in many cases create significant hurdles to legitimate commerce. It is fair to question, he writes, whether they have made the country safer, or significantly reduced crime.

President Barack Obama held a summit recently to talk about nuclear security, a hugely important issue. The U.S.-Canada border is the largest and most important trading link in the world. “It’s time for both countries to begin an open, public discussion — one that includes native American and first nations communities — of how the frontier should be managed.”