Washington

Unwanted attention

Andrew Phillips February 14 2000
Washington

Unwanted attention

Andrew Phillips February 14 2000

Unwanted attention

Andrew Phillips

Washington

Canadians often fret that Americans don’t pay us enough attention. We shouldn’t. Just look what happens when one influential American gets juiced about his northern neighbour.

Lamar Smith, a Republican congressman from south Texas, is Exhibit A for those who argue that Canadians are better off being overlooked in the United States. He’s the very model of a modern Republican: polite to a fault, a practising Christian Scientist whose only concession to quirkiness is his friendship with fellow Texan Kinky Friedman, the country-singerturned-mystery-writer who once led a band known as much for its outrageous name—the Texas Jewboys—as for its music.

When Mr. Smith went to Washington in 1987, he busied himself with causes dear to the hearts of conservative southerners like himself—promoting sexual abstinence among teens, stopping HIV-positive foreigners from attending the Gay Games, that sort of thing. But when Newt Gingrich’s Republican shock troops took over the House of Representatives in 1995, Smith took over a subcommittee dealing with a weightier issue: immigration. And in that capacity he has taken a lively interest in Canada.

Canadian officials fervendy wish he would stop.

Immigration is a big issue in Texas, and no wonder. Illegal immigrants and drugs flood across from Mexico, and Smith was the main author of a 1996 federal law designed to reinforce the U.S. border, set lower immigration levels and crack down on illegals. Anti-immigrant sentiment was running high, and Smiths law captured that sour mood.

No one at the time thought it had much to do with Canada. But lately Smith has been banging the drum for much tighter controls along what Americans call “the northern border.” He started last spring, holding a hearing at which witnesses darkly warned of drugs, terrorists and illegals infiltrating across the lightly patrolled northern frontier. The Clinton administration brushed off the complaints, and even stalled implementation of a section of the 1996 law that would require immigration agents to keep a record of all border crossings, a measure that could create massive jams at the border.

December’s terrorism panic changed all that. The Algerians accused of plotting to attack U.S. targets from their base in Montreal did more than give Americans a focus for their endof-millennium anxieties. They made Americans actually think

about their once placid northern border, and many of them didn’t like what they heard. Smith quickly rustled up another hearing to warn that “the border has become an irresistible temptation to international terrorists and smugglers.” (The hearing made history of a sort. It was the first Congress ever held while the U.S. government was officially shut down by a snowstorm. The Canadian witnesses, typically, managed to slog through the drifts while the rest of wimpy Washington was paralyzed.)

It’s no longer wise to dismiss Smith, as Canadian officials once did, as a minor player. Already the supposedly temporary border crackdown that followed the Algerians’ arrests is becoming permanent. Washington is adding 600 new customs and special agents to the northern border, boosting the number to 1,800. There’s also pressure to increase the number of Border Patrol agents, who number fewer than 300 along the entire 6,500-km frontier (compared with 7,400 along the shorter U.S.-Mexican border). And some politicians, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, from Illinois, are suggesting that the feuding agencies should be merged into a single border-control organization as part of a concerted effort to crack down.

The danger is that could mean longer waits and hassles for Canadians travelling south and businesses shipping goods across the border—with only a minimal extra chance of catching terrorists or smugglers. In response, some in Ottawa suggest moving to a so-called perimeter security system, whereby Canada and the United States would build common defences to prevent terrorists and illegals from ever reaching North America. In principle this is similar to the European Union’s system. Anyone entering the EU has to pass through security checks, but once inside you can move freely from one country to another without even showing a passport.

The problem, of course, is the old Canadian bugaboo— sovereignty. To satisfy security concerns in Washington, Canada would effectively have to adopt U.S. standards on such issues as visas and possibly refugee claimants. The emerging choice is not a happy one: learn to live with a tougher, more cumbersome border or give up even more sovereignty. So Canadians should send a message to Smith: Thanks for your interest, congressman. But could you stop now?