How the world’s longest undefended border is gradually closing, and the desperate scramble to save an international lifeline

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE June 5 2006


How the world’s longest undefended border is gradually closing, and the desperate scramble to save an international lifeline

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE June 5 2006



How the world’s longest undefended border is gradually closing, and the desperate scramble to save an international lifeline


For has the over ferried scenic 20 years, passengers coast Darrell from Bryan along Seattle to San Juan Island, and to Victoria. He carries some 300,000 annually, and his American route is booming, with double digit increases in each of the past three years. But last year, trips to Canada were down 10 per cent. Bryan doesn’t blame the weakening U.S. dollar. The phone calls streaming into his company’s office suggest the problem is confusion over a new U.S. law: do American travellers to Canada already need a passport to get back home? And if not now, when will they? Fewer than 24 per cent of Americans possess a passport (40 per cent of Canadians do), and surveys of Bryan’s customers show that almost one-fifth would forego travelling to Canada rather than apply for a passport.

Bryan has taken out ads clarifying that passports are not currently required. He has dropped his price roughly in half. But he expects Canada-bound traffic to fall another 10 per cent this year. “The fact that we are still not getting our historic ridership points to the confusion over passports,” says Bryan, a partner in Seattle-based Victoria Clipper, which runs four boats up the coast, employs 260 people, and whose full-service travel business bills itself as the largest wholesale booker of hotel rooms in Victoria. “Our future largely depends on how well this is handled,” he says. “And we are very concerned.” The next two years will mark the end of the 49th parallel as we know it—a gateway for some US$2 billion in travel and trade every day— unless some 11th hour acrobatics by Canadian diplomats, border state politicians and business groups can change things. Beginning next year, anyone entering the U.S. by air or sea will need a valid passport. At the land border, as of Jan. 1, 2008, entrants to the U.S.

must also have a passport or some other yetto-be determined secure identity document. That means every adult Canadian may have to shell out $87 for a passport, and every American adult US$97 if they want to take a boat around Lake of the Woods or cross to the other side of Niagara Falls. And they’ll need to apply weeks in advance. Kids will probably need documents too, albeit at a somewhat lower price.

Lawmakers and lobbyists on both sides of the border are scrambling to avoid what Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is calling a “train wreck” scenario at the border. They’re pushing for delays, or alternatives, but there are massive complications involved in both. For example, the greatest hope for a passport alternative is the passport card, or PASS card, promised by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It would fit in a wallet, cost around US$50, and would have a yet-to-be-determined, toll-booth type technology to make border crossings faster. “Once we all become accustomed to using a passport or a PASS card or something equivalent, it will aid travel and not impede it,” says David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada. But many doubt such a card can be created in time to meet the deadlines. It would still require that travellers plan and pay, and it would require infrastructure changes, from special lanes to special readers.

Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Wilson, described the extent of the challenge at his appearance before the House subcommittee on the western hemisphere last week. “This requirement is just over a year and a half away from coming into force,” he noted. That leaves little time, he went on, “to finalize and publish the implementing rule, consider the potential and significant economic impacts it may have on our economies, identify and develop the appropriate technology, install readers and related infrastructure at

border crossings, actually produce the millions upon millions of required documents, and convince people to buy the new documents.”

Even if the documentation is ready in time, business leaders worry the border will be a mess come Jan. 1,2008. “The worst case scenario is, at the busiest crossings, huge delays and backups because of some combination of technology that doesn’t work, not enough staff, not enough lanes—and everyone is being stopped,” says Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Washington-based Canadian American Business Council. Given the integrated North American supply chain, every hour of delay at the border can cost millions of dollars in lost production. In a worst case scenario, “grocery stores won’t get their products, Wal-Marts won’t get their Pampers,” Greenwood adds. She remains optimistic that it won’t come to that; meanwhile, her group is hoping U.S. lawmakers can be convinced to slow down the entire process, and start with a pilot program at one crossing, given how much is at stake.

What is certain, at this point, is that the process can’t be stopped. “It’s important we all realize we are in a post-9/ll era—we can’t turn back the clock,” says Wilkins. “And as the President said, you can’t have trade and tourism and prosperity if you don’t have security—but they are not mutually exclusive.”

Just how much is at stake? A study by the Conference Board of Canada estimates the proposed law will deter some 3.5 million trips into Canada, and enough tourism to cost the Canadian economy some $1.6 billion, and the American economy another $750 million. Then there’s the matter of a way of life coming to an end. In Vermont, the border cuts through streets,

private homes and even an opera house. In Minnesota, schoolchildren from an area called the Northwest Angle bus each day for 105 km across Manitoba roads to get to school in another part of the state. There, a fishing trip may mean crossing into Canada. “You don’t go fishing or boating with a passport in your pocket,” says Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican, who has been pushing to amend the law. In western New York, the embattled Buffalo Bills football team relies on 15,000 Canadian fans who come down to watch games. Without them, “no more sold-out games, no more Buffalo Bills,” says New York Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat.

“Crossing the Canadian border in upstate New York isn’t like crossing the Adantic Ocean,”

Schumer explained at a Senate subcommittee studying the planned changes. “It’s more like crossing the Hudson River—it’s done day to day, it’s done several times a day, it’s done at a moment’s whim. And to set up an elaborate procedure that would impede that kind of crossing would be a deathblow to our economy.” Crossings are already down. In 2004, 27-3 million Americans visited Canada by automobile, a number that dropped by 10.2 per cent to 24-5 million in 2005. At the Champlain-Lacolle border crossing near Plattsburgh, N.Y., summer crossings were up in 2005, but they fell by thousands each month after the new rules were announced. If this is an indication of things to come, Schumer says, “We are certainly in big trouble.”

Perhaps the region with the most at risk is Niagara, where “much of our business relies on the rubber-tire traffic from ‘Middle’ America—a couple with two kids who hop in a car and say let’s go to Niagara,” says Patrick Gedge, CEO of the Niagara Economic Development Corp. They come over on driver’s licences, he says, and “they are not going to go to the trouble and cost of getting a passport.” But never mind what might happen down the road. Combined with the weakening U.S. dollar and high gas prices, the misperception that passports are needed now and the threat they will be needed soon are already hurting the local economy. Over the past three years, Gedge says, some $1.3 billion in investment has poured into Niagara with the construction of new hotels and resorts to service U.S. visitors. But now, hundreds of millions more is in limbo. “The reality is, we are losing business today,” Gedge says, calling on both governments to launch a “massive marketing campaign” to let travellers know passports are not yet needed, and what their alternatives might be when they are. And Gedge hopes Michael Wilson “is aggressive and honest about what the implications are for both economies.”

As a matter of diplomacy, the socalled Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), as the impending border requirement is called, is the new softwood lumber dispute, the biggest priority for Canada in its relations with the U.S. and a test of the happier relations between Stephen Harper and George W. Bush. “I think the Canadian government should weigh in heavily with the American government,” New York’s Schumer told Maclean’s. “The interests of American citizens and Canadian citizens are the same.” But if the politics of passports were tough after the terrorist attacks on America, they are getting even tougher. It’s an election year,

and Congress is convulsed with debates over how to clamp down on illegal immigrants streaming in from Mexico. When the talk is of building triple-layered walls along the border, or deploying the National Guard to help police it, a passport sounds like a small thing to ask for. Bush said last week he doesn’t want policies for the northern border to be “restrictive,” but the political climate favours exactly that.

“It’s not that we think all Canadians and all Mexicans are a risk,” a senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Paul Rozensweig, explained to the Senate hearing. “But we have to recognize that some of them are.” To make his point, Rozensweig read from a report by CSIS. “This is the Canadians talking about themselves,” he told the committee. “Canada is viewed as an attractive location by terrorists. In fact, most of the world’s major terrorist orgs have a presence here. Terrorist-related activities in Canada generally are logistical in support of campaigns abroad,” he read, adding that abroad could include the United States.

American border agents are presented “with an almost impossible task” of adjudicating citizenship based on a panopoly of documents that are available, Rozensweig said. They must know how to examine over 8,000 different kinds of birth certificates—and that’s in the United States alone, in addition to stateissued driver’s licences, baptismal certificates, naturalization certificates, not to mention foreign documents. On an average day, they intercept more than 200 fraudulent documents and arrest more than 60 people at U.S. points of entry, while refusing entry to hundreds more. Rozensweig argued that their job would be easier and swifter with biometric passports. “Frankly, many documents are illegible and unverifiable. They create a great potential for fraud—and a potential for security vulnerability,” he said.

That vulnerability was underscored by the case of John Allen Muhammad, known as the “D.C. Sniper,” who is currently on trial for terrorizing the American capital for 20 days in October 2002, allegedly shooting 13 people and killing 10. It turned out that Muhammad, who at one point kidnapped his children and took them to the Caribbean nation of Antigua, made a living there by forging U.S. driver’s licences and birth certificates, and selling them to Jamaicans for US$3,000 per set. Those could have been used as ID to enter the U.S.: like Americans travelling home from Canada and elsewhere in the western hemisphere, except Cuba, those entering from Jamaica were exempt from the passport requirement to enter the U.S. These revelations caused outrage in Congress, but when a House committee studied the incident,

some members were keen to make sure the Caribbean would not be singled out. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas held up a photo from the Houston Chronicle and read the caption aloud: “Long Ride for Short Legs. Mitchell Hinsher, 7, from Niagara Falls, Ont., rode his bike across the United States-Canada border Saturday undetected by U.S. customs officials. His nearly 8.5-mile journey ended at a busy intersection in Niagara Falls, N.Y.” “This,” she told her colleagues, “is among the challenges that we have.”

Precisely how Canada weighs in is a delicate question. Canadian officials believe they cannot be seen to be arguing for less border security. Nor does the Harper government want to be seen to be lecturing the Americans about what documents to require of its own citizens. And both countries need to co-operate to keep the border running as smoothly as possible, no matter what policy takes effect.

So Canada is following a strategy that one official calls “sophisticated but plodding.” It consists in one part of assuring the Bush administration that Canada is ready and willing to co-operate with whatever rules are passed, and pushing for harmonization of technology so that things will work as smoothly as possible. But on the other hand, Canada is quietly making the case, in private meetings on Capitol Hill, that extending the deadlines would be best for everyone. “Our message is, we are with you on security,” a Canadian official explained. “We are just saying, let’s take the time to do it right.”

“We have a long way to go” to delay or change the legislation, Wilson admitted last week. But he remains hopeful. “If it looks like it’s not appropriate to proceed on the timing

that’s in the legislation, reasonable people will say we should have a delay. Reasonable people understand that we can’t have confusion and disruption at significant border crossings.”

Canada also wants the Department of Homeland Security to acknowledge that there is wiggle room in the language of the law, which was passed without much notice in December 2004 as part of the mammoth Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. The commission’s final report said, “Americans should not be exempt from carrying biometric passports or otherwise enabling their identities to be securely verified when they enter the United States; nor should Canadians or Mexicans.”

The law instructs the executive branch, in

the person of the secretary of homeland security, to decide what documents will be sufficient. These may include “a passport or other document, or combination of documents, deemed by the secretary of homeland security to be sufficient to denote identity and citizenship, for all travel into the United States.” The precise meaning of “other documents” is up to the Bush administration. The secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, told Canada’s minister of public security, Stockwell Day, that documents other than passports will be acceptable. But he did not say which ones: only the proposed PASS cards? Or documents that Americans and Canadians currently possess, such as a combination of driver’s licence and birth certificate? That question will not be answered definitively until later this year for air and sea crossings, and next year for the land border when Homeland Security comes out with its proposed rules.

The American ambassador says the concerns “have been heard.” And, Wilkins adds, “The most important thing to realize is WHTI is a work in progress. The law has been passed, but Homeland Security has jurisdiction to come up with regulations that will deal with the PASS card or another secure alternative to the passport.”

Business groups are also fanning out across Capitol Hill. The coalition for Business for Economic Security, Trade & Tourism has been urging Congress to change the law to create souped-up driver’s licences that would include citizenship information. The group’s director, Ken Oplinger, is the head of the chamber of commerce in the border community of Bellingham, Wash., near the border. His wife commutes each day to workin Vancouver. “For people like me, I never know when I’m going to be over the border. I would have to carry my passport on me all the time—and a 24or 48-page book is not something easy to carry around,” he says.

Oplinger does not see PASS cards as a solution. “In essence, you have to go through all the same stuff to get a PASS card as a passport—there is no benefit as far as timeliness. There is a cost break, but it’s not significant. And third, most important, it is only good at the land border,” he complains. In addition, Homeland Security seems to be far from settling on a technology, let alone producing a card. Confirming the worries of many critics, Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary for U.S. passport services, told the Senate subcommittee hearing that it will be difficult for the State Department to get the cards out on time. Nonetheless, in an interview with Macleans, Jim Williams, the Homeland Security official charged with overseeing the

card’s implementation, said the deadlines are “aggressive”—but that the department is “committed” to meeting them, and is fully aware of the economic stakes.

High-tech cards can make crossing the border faster and more efficient, he argued. “If you [continue to] rely upon driver’s licences and birth certificates, you haven’t done anything to help with facilitation. We have US$2 billion a day in travel and trade that goes across the border, and we want to do everything we can to take it into the 2lst century,” he added. Williams also said that every effort will be made not to discourage tourism. “We know that we have to deal with the issue of casual travellers—those who fly into Buffalo for a wedding and want to see the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and don’t have passports,” he said. They may be able to acquire special day passes or some other form of ID.

“We are trying to compress a major cultural change into a short period of time,” says Bryan, the ferry operator in Seattle. “My personal opinion is that it’s a tragedy, because we shouldn’t have to rely on a passport. Make the driver’s licence more secure,” he says. But the State Department’s Moss has said that improved driver’s licences are not the answer, at least in the short term. “We view this as a solution perhaps in the future, but not certainly under the timelines we have, where quite honestly we will admit we are hardpressed to roll out the card right now,” he told the Senate.

There are efforts in Congress to slow down the process and avoid Senator Leahy’s dire train-wreck scenario. But so far, politicians are caught up in the political storm over illegal Mexican immigration. Still, as controversial immigration reform legislation is debated in Congress, border state lawmakers succeeded in including in the Senate immigration bill several changes to the passport law. Among them: extend the deadlines until the documentation is ready and has been tested, allow the use of PASS cards at both sea and land entry points, waive fees for kids, and open the possibility for the future use of more secure driver’s licences. “If it gets all the way through, a good part of the problem is solved,” says Oplinger.

But getting the bill passed by the Senate was half the battle. In the weeks ahead, senators will have to negotiate a compromise with representatives of the much more hawkish House, which has already passed tougher immigration legislation. Whether or not the bill, let alone the portions relating to the passport law, can survive this process remains to be seen. Like never before, the fate of the northern border is now tied to the one to the south. M