On the border, jitters replace historic openness

With security worries, the Canada-U.S. line has grown taut

Posted: Tuesday, July 05, 2005

ON THE U.S.-CANADA BORDER - Nearly four years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and after billions in security investment on both sides of this frontier stretching from Atlantic to Pacific, authorities and average folks are still jittery. Here's why:

• At the edge of a raspberry field where Washington state meets British Columbia, a U.S. Border Patrol agent shakes his head at tire tracks that snake between rows of berries and over the international boundary, which here is a ditch so puny a person can leap it.

"They're long gone," says agent Candido Villalobos, who raced to the scene after a surveillance camera spotted the vehicle - transporting contraband? Something more sinister? Too late to know. "They beat us," Villalobos murmurs.

• At Sandwich, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, the Olde Town Bake Shoppe overlooks the Ambassador Bridge, the busiest trade crossing between the United States and Canada. Thousands of trucks rumble along its lanes daily, loaded with everything from Nova Scotia salmon to U.S. auto parts.

Bakery owner Mary Ann Cuderman worries about what else might be passing, especially given concern that infrastructure could be a terrorist target. A citizens group she heads wants closer scrutiny. "How do you feel secure," she says, "knowing that anybody, at any time, could drive right up on that bridge?"

• Farther east, where Maine and New Brunswick touch, a man carrying a homemade sword, a hatchet, a knife, brass knuckles and a chain saw stained with what seemed like blood sought entry to the United States. After confiscating his weapons and questioning him, border agents let him in.

Canadian-born Gregory Despres was a naturalized U.S. citizen returning home, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials explained. But the day after he was admitted to America in April, authorities in his Canadian hometown found two bodies - one decapitated, the other stabbed to death. Despres was arrested wandering a road in Massachusetts.

"The whole thing gives me a queasy feeling," says Colin Kenny, chairman of Canada's Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defense.

Two U.S. congressmen, Edward Markey and Stephen Lynch, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, seeking answers about the Despres case and a review of entry procedures. Said Markey: "Giving the green light to this deranged individual to enter our country raises serious questions about these procedures."

Balancing the historic openness of the U.S.-Canada border with today's necessary wariness is a challenge the two nations still have not mastered - and some fear the continued ambivalence could be harmful.

"Despite what should have been the wake-up call of September 11, 2001, there has been an unsettling lack of progress on both sides of the border to improve efficiency and strengthen security at land border crossings," said a 192-page report issued last month by Kenny's committee.

Last week, Chertoff and his counterparts from Canada and Mexico met to pledge better integration of terrorist watchlists and other measures to counter threats.

Yet tightening rules along the border is rarely easy. This spring the Bush administration proposed, then held up, a plan to require passports of everyone entering the United States from Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean, Panama and Canada. President Bush said the proposal would "disrupt the honest flow of traffic," though he added: "We've got a lot to do to enforce the border."

Much has already been done. In the Blaine, Wash., border sector, where the raspberry field tire tracks were found, 32 new camera surveillance systems are online and 133 agents on staff, 2 1/2 times the number prior to Sept. 11. Still, Eugene Davis, retired deputy chief of this Border Patrol sector, frets: "We are still wide-open."

At the mile-and-a-half-long Ambassador Bridge, vehicles are not inspected before they embark from either country; as with other border spans, that only happens once they reach the opposite end. Skip McMahon, a spokesman for Detroit International Bridge Co., the private owner, says armed guards patrol the bridge 24 hours every day. Still, he suggests concerned citizens push both federal governments for inspections of suspicious cargo before vehicles cross.

Canada's welcoming immigration policies have long drawn scrutiny from Americans, who fear a terrorist claiming refugee status could lie in wait to carry out a mission. That threat still exists, says David Harris, former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada's counterpart to the CIA.

Harris asserts more than 50 terrorist organizations have a presence in Canada.

"Canada has essentially said, if you put your foot in Canada and you declare yourself a (Geneva Convention) refugee, then by and large you are," says Harris. "It means that we're quite susceptible to penetration."

Canada continues to admit 250,000 new immigrants and refugees annually. A Canadian government report notes that refugee claims can be delayed up to two years, meaning potentially dangerous applicants can disappear.

Though not a refugee, Fateh Kamel, suspected former ringleader of an Islamic extremist group, easily returned to Montreal in January after serving a prison term in France for terrorist plots there. His Canadian passport (he holds Algerian-Canadian citizenship) gave officials no choice but to admit him - though some lawmakers have since suggested his citizenship be revoked.

The case has parallels to that of Despres, who authorities said violated no immigration rule.

About 1,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents work along the U.S.-Canada border, roughly triple the 2001 force but a fraction of the 9,600 agents who patrol the Mexican border, about half as long at 1,900 miles.

The Canadian side is monitored by 23 enforcement teams, consisting of officers of the 4,500-member Canada Border Services Agency, supplemented by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and local police departments. Still, most of Canada's 160 land and maritime border crossings are staffed by only one unarmed guard - and long stretches between entry points go unmanned.

On both sides, forests and waterways harbor hidden nooks where helicopters, motorboats, even kayaks drop off or collect drugs.

Recalling a highly publicized terrorist case, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Peter Ostrovsky says, "We're lucky that Ahmed Ressam did not hook up with Canadians smuggling contraband into the country."

Ressam, with ties to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, was arrested in 1999 in Port Angeles, Wash., as he drove off a ferry from Canada. Customs agents found explosives in his trunk; Ressam eventually was convicted of plotting a blast at the Los Angeles airport.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has added small air and marine operations branches near Blaine and Plattsburgh, N.Y.; others are planned for Michigan, North Dakota and Montana.

The friendship between the countries has a potent symbol in downtown Blaine. Twenty-acre Peace Arch Park straddles the international line. People from both nations may meander through its gardens - so long as they go home at day's end. Many don't.

In Blaine, the Border Patrol's Joe Giuliano believes security is greater but speaks pragmatically:

"I can put a million agents out there and have them run willy-nilly across the border catching everything that moves and throwing it back. Two hours later, they're going to try again ... and sooner or later somebody's going to find that one little seam and exploit it."

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