BOISE – Officials and experts from the United States and Canada say a U.S. border policy driven by concerns about terrorism and problems at the Mexico border is hurting Pacific Northwest communities.
“We’ve got a much more open border there, and we’ve got a real intense personal and commercial relationship,” said Idaho Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, whose district borders Canada in Boundary County. “We’re trying to decide what to do with the Canadian border based on what we do with the Mexican border. I think that’s wrong, because we’ve got different problems.”
About 500 officials, experts and business people from the U.S. and Canada gathered for the annual meeting of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region to discuss cross-border economic issues, including energy, agriculture and economic development. There was lots of talk about the impact of border policy changes in the U.S. since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Donald Alper, a Western Washington University political scientist and director of the Border Policy Research Institute, said his research shows a substantial drop-off in cross-border travel at the Canadian border with the security increases of the past eight years. He co-chaired a session on the issue Monday.
“My personal view is it’s probably ludicrous that we’re securitizing the border with Canada to the point that we are,” Alper said.
Montana Rep. Julie French, D-Scobey, said the federal government is pouring $15 million in economic stimulus funds into upgrading a border crossing in her district that only sees 10 cars a day, and a similar amount on another that’s just a bit busier. “They need to be updated, yes. Fifteen million? No,” she said. “I mean, common sense is what is lacking for all of this.”
British Columbia lawmaker John van Dongen, president of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region and a former minister of state for intergovernmental relations, said, “We can’t collectively allow that kind of nonsense to happen.”
Alper said communities that had developed close cross-border cultures have seen those relationships erode as the U.S. limited access. French said there was a time when farmers in her northeastern Montana district were given pass cards allowing them to open a border gate after-hours when needed at their local crossing. That ended with the Sept. 11 attacks.
Geoffrey Hale, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, said pressure from “security hawks” in Congress has led to a focus on security over efficiency and trade at U.S.-Canada border crossings. More collaboration at crossings could ease that, he said. But, he warned, “if we expect major coordination in Ottawa and Washington, it’s probably a lost cause.”
Few Americans think of Canada when they think of borders, experts say. Most think of Mexico, where border states have problems with illegal immigration.
“When it comes to who does what about borders in Washington, it skews to the Southwest,” said Michael Dark, head of the Alberta Institute for American Studies at the University of Alberta. “The real interest is from congressmen in the Southwest who don’t know much about the border with Canada.”
The nation’s new homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, is the former governor of Arizona.
Alper said, “Building a thick, almost virtual wall – all it does is screw up trade, cause hard feelings among Canadians and Americans, and in the end, (it) probably isn’t doing much good, except you’re catching a few more drug runners and illegal immigrants.”
America is essentially using anti-terrorism tools to go after mostly small drug runners, Alper said. “The statistics bear me out on that. The number of people caught for carrying illegal drugs has gone way, way up,” simply because there are more people patrolling the northern borders now.
“But we haven’t caught a single terrorist since 9/11.”