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Thousand Islands divided by the international border.
Thousand Islands divided by the international border.

U.S.-Canadian border changes since 9/11

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In the years since the September 11 attacks, life has changed along the U.S. - Canadian border. What used to be an informal crossing, has become militarized, and its changed the lives and expectations of people who live nearby. Julie Grant takes a look back at some of ways life has changed along the border, and whether it's making Americans safer.

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A border crossing in the Thousands Islands area.  (Photo: Brian Mann)

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People in towns along the border used to cross back and forth between Canada and the U.S. all the time for everything from dinner and shopping to cheaper gas. Customs might have waved you through without even checking for I-D.  People bragged about how friendly it all was. 

But then, September 11 happened.  In the days after, newspapers mistakenly reported that some of the attackers had entered the U.S. through Canada. The mistake stuck.  Eight years later, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Nepolitano repeated it.  She later backtracked, then told Fox News:

"But the point is this, and this is the greater point, there’s been some resistance or feeling in Canada that we are thickening the border unnecessarily between our two countries, and the answer is that Canada allows people in its country that the United States does not necessarily allow in the United States."

The U.S. has spent billions of dollars beefing up its northern border since September 11: Upgrading ports of entry, increasing surveillance and technology, more than doubling the number of border officers. Now, everyone coming in from Canada needs a passport, or another official form of identification.

Nowadays, homeland security can stop drivers even when they’re not crossing the border. David Sommerstein reported in 2005 about the increasing presence of border patrols along north country roadways:

"This is a border patrol checkpoint on Route 37 between Masenna and Ogdensburg. The agent may wave you through quickly, or you may have to answer several questions.  The U.S. border patrol is allowed to set up roadblocks within 100 air miles of the border.  The agency says it has 20-30 locations around northern New York and Vermont.  On Interstate 91, Interstate 87 in Essex County, and on local roads, mostly in Jefferson, St. Lawrence, and Franklin Counties."

Homeland security officers have also started checking passports on buses travelling in New York, and other states – anything within 100 miles of the border is fair game. 

The stops have become more intrusive in recent years.

Last year, American student Pascal Abidor was trying to cross the border while travelling home to New York City by Amtrak train.  He was detained at the crossing north of  Plattsburgh. 

"They asked everything about my life.  My interests, why I’m interested in Islam, why I’ve travelled in the Middle East.  Eventually when I received the lap top back, I looked at the last open date of files, and based on that I was able to determine that they had looked extensively at my personal photos, personal saved chats with my girlfriend."

The American Civil Liberties Union and two other groups have filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security, based in part on Abidor’s incident. The case is still in the courts. 

Civil liberties advocates say stories like Abidor's show the types of freedoms Americans have given up since September 11. 

The thicker northern border has also made it hard to do business across the border.

For example, Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands says new U.S. security requirements have dramatically reduced the number of tourist boats that can come over from Canada; numbers of boats are down from nine a day to two and that's a loss of about 420-thousand dollars a year. 

Bob Runciman of Brockville represents the Thousand Islands in Canada’s Senate. He says it’s essential to businesses on both sides that border crossings go smoothly.

"If you have to sit in a line at a bridge for over an hour to come over for dinner or go to the theatre or do some shopping, you’re not going to do that very often."

Politicians on both sides of the border have searched for a balance for the last ten years. They want the border open for business, while maintaining security, but it’s proven tough.

 "It’s tougher than ever for the businessman" said Mark Barie of Plattsburgh. He calls himself Captain of the Canadian Connection.  Barie worked for 30 years helping Canadian businessmen get work visas, but he sold the business two years ago because, now more than ever, immigration authorities are hitting businesses hard.

"Either they bang them in without any questions at all, or they drive them crazy until they give up. You need an experienced immigration practitioner to get through the border these days.  It shouldn’t be that way."

But the top priority at the border isn’t free trade, it’s security.

U.S. security secretary Janet Napolitano has said that when suspected or known terrorists have entered the U.S. across a border, it’s been across the Canadian border. 

Which begs the question: For all the time, money, and goodwill spent, is the U.S. safer?

Chris Kirkey, director of the Center for the study of Canada at SUNY Plattsburgh, answers, "Yes, absolutely."

"With the increase in the number of agents, the increase in and the sophistication in the training they receive, and the regularity of that training, as well as the new technology that’s in place and will continue to be put in place.  The ability, while not perfect, the ability to potentially detect and avert any kind of threat to the United States is at the highest level that it’s ever been.  There’s no question about that."

But in 2007, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released a report showing that the Canadian border posed a significant threat as a terrorist point of entry. Brian Mann spoke with the managing director of investigations at the GAO, Greg Kutz.

 Kutz said his team was able to cross the border easily at four remote sites along the Canadian border.

Kutz said, "At several of these locations we simulated smuggling radioactive materials and other contraband into the U.S. At one location, our investigator delivered a large red duffel bag about 75 feet from a rental car parked in Canada, to a rental car parked in the U.S."

For obvious reasons, Brian said Kutz wouldn’t disclose which sites were used for the crossing, but he did say at least one of the crossings on the northern border involved an actual checkpoint that had been closed for the night. 

"The other vulnerability we identified on the northern border related to ports of entry with posted daytime hours that were unmanned over night," Kutz said.

According to Brian, the GAO was able to drive a car around a traffic barrier erected at the checkpoint.

More recently, in February this year, a GAO report found that only 32 miles of the 4-thousand mile U.S.-Canada border is secure. The Department of Homeland Security says they are confident about security along a thousand miles.

in 2007, Brian also spoke with Congressman John McHugh (now secretary of the army) about the problem of patrolling such a long border:  

"I guess one of the concerns would be that this border is so vast, and so porous currently, that we’ll get to the place where we’re hassling the heck out of people who are trying to come across for legitimate reasons, but someone who’s a wanted felon in Canada can choose an empty stretch of dirt road and walk across." said Brian.

"Well, or walk across one of the many islands in the St. Lawrence." McHugh responded, "We could hire ten million new border agents and have them stand along the border hand to hand and we still wouldn’t have an absolutely tight border." 

Despite the daunting logistics, however, security has continued to increase.

This summer, boaters and fishermen were shocked by the latest escalation in border enforcement. 

When an American drifted into Canadian waters while fishing on the St. Lawrence River, Canadian agents boarded his boat and fined him.

The agents said he needed to check in at a port of entry even though he hadn’t anchored or docked.  American boaters didn’t know they needed to check in with Canada when drifting because, for generations, they just didn’t.

Fishermen from both shores have been drifting on the St. Lawrence since before there was a border.

But others say no one should be surprised that tougher border enforcements have reached so far into daily life. The days of informality on the border between Canada and the United States are ten years in the past.

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