From the air, America’s “silent” border is also invisible. In a vast prairie landscape, Canadian and American wheat fields stretch smoothly to each nation’s edge.
But, in contradiction of a popular image of the world’s longest open frontier, the Canadian-American border invisibly deforms the rural communities it courses through.
Like a cuckoo-clock Berlin wall, the steel border gates just outside of Scobey drop at 6 p.m., forcing cross-border visitors who tarry over dinner to pay the penalty: a 120-mile drive to and from Raymond, Mont., the nearest 24-hour border crossing. For generations it has been thus: a Christmas dinner invitation declined, a wedding reception left early, a Canadian cousin’s curling match missed.
It’s the same in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, where 10 border crossings stretch from Bonners Ferry to Oroville. Only two of the ports - Osoyoos, near Oroville, and Eastport, near Bonners Ferry - are open 24 hours a day on both sides of the border.
The Frontier-Paterson crossing near Trail, British Columbia, is open 24 hours on the Canadian side but only 16 to 18 hours a day on the U.S. side because of budget restrictions. All the rest of the ports in this region operate 16 hours a day except for two that are open only eight hours.
“Our kids and grandkids are growing up without socializing,” Jim Crandell, a Scobey hotel owner, said of the lack of contact between the American and Canadian branches of his family. “It’s really difficult if there is a wedding or a death in the family. We have a business back here we can’t leave overnight.”
In addition to the social connections, forged through marriage, the United States and Canada have the world’s largest trading relationship, estimated at $300 billion for 1995.
“One hundred percent of the net new trade between the U.S. and Canada is occurring between the Western provinces and Western states,” said Philip M. Burgess, co-author with Michael Kelly of a statistical book, “Profile of Western North America.”
“What you have along the length of the Western border is a cross-border community developing,” said Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, a Denver-based study group.
In recognition of the strong and growing economic ties between the countries, President Clinton and Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada signed an accord last February in an effort to ease border crossings and increase air travel between the two countries. And so on Jan. 17 glasnost will come to the prairies in the form of video cameras, personal identification numbers and a computerized voice-recognition system.
Billed as the world’s first voice-activated border crossing, the Scobey border post will test an electronic system that will allow registered local residents to cross back and forth 24 hours a day.
If successful, the system could be expanded later this decade to the roughly one-third of the 113 U.S.-Canada crossings that are not 24-hour posts.
A similar system already is planned for the Nighthawk crossing 12 miles west of Oroville in Okanogan County.
“Nighthawk is still on the list to be done, but it’s moving slower than everyone anticipated,” said Richard Garner, director of the U.S. Customs Service office in Oroville, which operates the Nighthawk post.
Garner is uncertain when the project will proceed. He said officials apparently are waiting to see the results of experimental systems at Scobey and five other crossings in North Dakota, Vermont and Maine.
He said a variety of technologies have been discussed for Nighthawk, ranging from a simple card-operated gate to devices that recognize unique patterns in the retinas of people’s eyes or the lines on their palms.
“For these small ports, a card gate’s probably good enough, but I don’t know,” Garner said.
The Nighthawk port now is open only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Garner estimated 50 to 100 cars cross daily, almost none of which are commercial vehicles. Many of those who cross are local residents, but there is a substantial amount of pass-through traffic from Canadian Highway 3, a major east-west thoroughfare along the border.
In Scobey, snow sparkled in fields of yellow wheat stubble as David Kueber, an immigration service inspector, explained the newly installed system. During off hours in Scobey, an inspector at Raymond will monitor traffic through the remote-controlled camera. Scobey was chosen as a test site because of the virtual absence of border crime.
To participate in the program, residents must apply for a wallet-sized pass card. After approval, cardholders record on a border post computer a secret phrase and a four-digit number. On approaching the crossing, the cardholder picks up a gate telephone, punches in the secret number, and then utters the secret phrase, a high-technology version of “open sesame.”
If the computer does not recognize the voice, the driver can talk to the immigration inspector in Raymond by telephone. Using the camera, the inspector can scan the car to verify that all passengers have cards. Drivers who take undocumented aliens across the border run the risk of losing their cards and their vehicles.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer John Craig contributed to this report.