May 05, 2008
That other border

Great article in Salon about how our current obsession with border security is damaging our relationship with Canada, and directly harming businesses on both sides of the US-Canadian border, which for years have thrived on easy crossings.

If the tighter border were just an inconvenience for strip-club patrons, sports fans and gamblers, its effect on international relations might be no big deal. But it's disrupting everyday life in Ameri-Canadian communities, where residents have always thought of themselves as neighbors, not foreigners. The Champlain, N.Y., fire department has a mutual-aid pact with a nearby town in Quebec. Last year, the Canadians were late for a blaze because Homeland Security stopped a truck to inspect the crew's papers.

Automakers that shuttle parts between plants in the United States and Canada now stockpile them in warehouses because truck inspection times have tripled since 2000. The delays cost $11.5 billion a year, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Indian tribes are outraged about the prospect of having to carry passports to visit relatives and sacred sites across the border that divides their traditional lands. In January, trips from the United States to Canada hit their lowest mark since record-keeping began in 1972.

It's more difficult to measure the impact on American business because our weak dollar makes the border hassle worthwhile for many Canadian shoppers. Canadian visits are up 10 percent since last year, but an official with the Binational Tourism Alliance says that "15 years ago, when the exchange rate was last where it is, the numbers were three times what they are now." Overall, between 1995 and 2005, annual crossings from Canada dropped by half. Perhaps the stay-at-homes include a gentleman I met in Kingston, Ont., who told me he never goes to the states because "I don't want Uncle George looking up my butt."

In her day job as New York's junior senator, Hillary Clinton has pleaded with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to cancel the passport regulations, fearing they'll damage upstate New York's already sickly economy. "I've been a leader on the [Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI)] issue," Clinton told Salon during a campaign stop earlier this year. "I have been opposed to what they've been trying to do. It'll interfere with recreation and tourism. I've spoken to Secretary Chertoff opposing the regulations requiring passports at the northern and southern border."

The new rules aren't just aimed at preventing another 9/11. They're also part of a crackdown on illegal immigration. But Canadians are not swimming across Lake Erie to escape socialized medicine and sane mortgage-lending laws. According to a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, the "vast majority" of people lying about their citizenship are trying to cross the southern border. And yet, the DHS is applying the same rules to the Canadian border as it is to the Mexican border, despite our vastly different relationships with the two countries.

"The U.S. government has been insulting in the way it's handled the border without consulting the Canadians," says Andrew Rudnick, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a business association of U.S. and Canadian companies. "They've been insensitive to life here."

In a weird way, I'm actually a bit gratified to hear. It's nice to know that DHS' complete lack of sensitivity, empathy, and common sense on this issue isn't limited to the Rio Grande Valley. At least we haven't been singled out for this kind of special treatment.

Way back in 1990, some buddies of mine and I won a bridge tournament called the Grand National Teams. (It was for Flight C, the lowest level, so don't be too impressed, but it was still pretty cool.) As the prize for our victory, we won plane tickets to the ACBL summer tournament to compete for the national championship. (We wound up losing in the semifinals to an inferior team, but that's another story.) The tournament that year was in Toronto, and it was a blast - the weather was gorgeous, the facilities were awesome, we all had a ton of fun - but I had a small problem. See, up till that point, every foreign trip I'd ever taken (one each to Europe, Canada, and Mexico) had been a school-arranged trip, which is to say ones where all of those fussy details had been taken care of for me by someone else. Nobody told me what kind of documentation you needed to get into and out of Canada from the US. I knew I didn't need a passport, which I'd had but hadn't been required to bring when I made the previous trip. That passport I'd had was expired by 1990, and I didn't have a copy of my birth certificate. (Actually, I did have a copy - my parents had sent it to me after I'd graduated college in 1988 - but it had gotten lost somewhere along the line. Which a few years later required me to navigate a cumbersome phone menu to request a new copy from whatever bureau handles that sort of thing in New York City so I could get a new passport for my honeymoon trip, but that too is another story.) And frankly, I didn't give the matter much thought. Hey, I was a citizen, right? I had photo ID, right? What could possibly go wrong?

So anyway. The day comes to fly to Toronto, and airline ticket agent asks me if I have a passport or birth certificate or something similar with me, and I said no. She gave me a funny look, advised me to lay hands on something better than my driver's license and Social Security card if I wanted to return home, and gave me my boarding pass. I got a similar look and piece of advice from Customs in Canada. Thinking that maybe they knew something that I didn't know, I called my dad from the hotel and explained my situation. After sighing heavily and reminding me that he'd already sent me my birth certificate, he said he'd think of something. And he did: A day later, I received a fax containing a sworn affidavit, written on official New York State Supreme Court stationery (Dad was a judge back then) swearing that I was his son and that I'd been born on Staten Island. He also included a copy of my baptism certificate, which was the next best thing he could find.

And when I arrived back in Houston and showed those documents to the Customs agents here, they had a good laugh at my story and let me in. One agent said the affidavit was more persuasive to him than the baptism certificate, but in any event, it worked. Needless to say, the kind of benign stupidity that I exhibited back then would exact a higher price these days.

Anyway, I hope that people can read this article and come to realize that all this focus on "sealing the borders" imposes high costs on the people and businesses who live and operate near those borders. It's entirely possible to me that an honest accounting of those costs would show them to be comparable to the ones supposedly being imposed by illegal immigrants, and that's before we consider what we're losing in good will and friendly relations with countries that are and should be close allies and trading partners. Unfortunately, I don't know what it's going to take to make people see it that way.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 05, 2008 to National news