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Overzealous US-Canada border security hurts both countries

For Homeland Security officials, it’s a point of pride. For Canadians, it’s a festering sore point.

Since the 9/11 jihadist attacks, the 5,525-mile-long border between Canada and the United States has been transformed from the world’s friendliest to a high security zone marked by fortified crossing points, thermal “body detectors,” swiveling surveillance cameras, and the occasional low-skimming Blackhawk helicopter or spy drone.

This is a bitter change for Canadians, most of whom live within 100 miles of the US and who — more than Americans — routinely cross the border for shopping, business, or pleasure. These days they are closely questioned and obliged to show a passport. (For decades, a provincial driver’s license sufficed — and was seldom inspected.) The number of Americans travelling to Canada, meanwhile, has dropped.


Both nations have been hurt by what Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University, refers to as the “Mexicanization” of the US-Canada border, marked by “increasing militarization and lack of flexibility’’ by the Americans.

The real problem at the US-Canada border is not terrorism or illegal immigration — by best estimates, only about 2 percent of those who enter the United States illegally come by way of Canada — but the failure of two friends to grapple with red tape, bureaucratic procedures, and exaggerated vigilance.

Instead of focusing on the actual border, both nations should cooperate more closely on “perimeter security” — placing emphasis on using intelligence and law enforcement agencies to keep terrorists and other criminals from entering North America in the first place.

But while the United States must be willing to relax its border procedures, Canada should be willing to align its visa requirements and entry procedures for foreigners more closely with the United States. At present, Canada still allows certain foreigners — especially those with police records and dubious claims of being “political refugees’’ — who would be ejected from the United States.


Both countries have plenty of reason to seek a less fraught border environment. Each country is the other’s largest trading partner, with almost $2 billion in goods and services crossing the border every day. But studies suggest that heightened security on the US side is costing Canadian businesses and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Part of that comes from commercial transport delays that waste fuel and time. Some is lost tourism. American businesses also suffer when their Canadian customers get sick of dealing with the border.

But perhaps the heaviest cost is in bad feeling and distrust.

In the European Union, borders have been opened: One can drive from Portugal to Poland unhindered by passport checks or security interrogation. Don’t look for that kind of openness to occur between the US and Canada.

The problem is mindset as much as anything. The United States sees the border as a threat requiring constant vigilance and strengthening. When a lone-wolf jihadist killed a soldier in Ottawa last year — an incident that posed no threat to the United States — Secretary of State John Kerry’s first response was to urge tighter border security. Canadians cringed.

The countries should also speed up customs procedures by eliminating multiple inspections of the same cargo. Cars built in Japan or South Korea need to clear customs only once when entering the Canada or the United States. Vehicles built in the United States and Canada — major North American automakers keep plants on both sides of the border — are subject to inspections and fees at least seven times as the vehicles go back and forth in various stages of manufacture.


Along the same lines, the United States should accept security inspections done in advance for “trusted companies’’ — companies with long business ties and no violations — that would streamline imports from Canada.

Canada and the United States have already started a “Nexus” program that, after advance intensive security screening, issues special security passes that allow citizens of either country to use special speed lanes at certain airports and ground border controls. It’s a good program, but needs to be expanded.

Meanwhile, the United States should lose the drones — there’s little evidence that they monitor anything more alarming than wayward moose tracks.

Above all, America should show more good will and recognition that the US-Canada relationship is more than just “special” — greater integration with our North American neighbor may be the only way we can realistically compete against the economic might of China.