By Edward Alden
Nearly a decade after the United States and Canada set the early template for cross-border cooperation in the post-9/11 era with the 2001 Smart Border Accords, the two governments finally appear ready to take the next step towards a genuine system of “perimeter security.” The Canadian press is reporting this week that the U.S. and Canada are hoping that President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will unveil the new border strategy next month.
While the initiative as outlined makes tremendous sense on both sides of the border, it will face significant opposition in Canada from those who fear that national sovereignty will be sacrificed on the altar of continental security, and in the United States from those who favor unilateral approaches to securing the borders. Supporters of intelligence risk management on both sides of the border will have to work hard to spell out the benefits from such an agreement and to overcome the inevitable opposition.
The idea behind perimeter security is that the two governments would cooperate intensively to keep potentially dangerous goods and travelers from entering North America. In turn, greater security from overseas threats would permit streamlining of the northern border inspection regime, which has raised costs for business and discouraged travelers from crossing the U.S.-Canada border. With both the U.S. and Canadian economies growing anemically and facing high unemployment, improving the cross-border business and travel environment has never been more urgent economically.
There has been considerable progress enhancing security at the Canadian border, including the document requirements under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). But the costs for trade and travel have been far too high. Both commercial truck and passenger car traffic to the United States fell after 9/11 and have never recovered. The weakness in car traffic is particularly striking, because historically a strong Canadian dollar sent shoppers flooding south looking for bargains. Even with the Canadian dollar now at parity with the greenback, that is no longer the case.
The details of the agreement are still sketchy, and are supposed to be fleshed out through negotiations following the announcement of a framework agreement next month. They include setting common standards for screening incoming cargo before it leaves foreign ports, improving border infrastructure, and deepening law enforcement cooperation.
The most important and controversial element is likely to be the creation of an integrated entry-exit system for travelers. For Canada, this means adopting and rolling out a US-VISIT style biometric entry system. The two governments will also agree to share much more real time information to help in targeting incoming overseas travelers who should be blocked or deserve extra scrutiny. This will raise privacy concerns in Canada, and the negotiations will not be easy.
For the United States, a big carrot is the prospect of establishing a workable “exit” system at the land border with Canada. Congress has long been pressing the Department of Homeland Security to create a biometric exit system for recording the departure of travelers, but little progress has been made. The obstacles at the land border are especially daunting. Technology could allow for remote readers on the U.S. side of the border to record travel documents from car passengers, but there is no way to verify consistently that the document is connected to its rightful owner. And establishing a more intrusive exit system would be extraordinarily costly and disruptive to cross-border traffic and commerce.
Under the framework, the two governments would commit to an information sharing arrangement so that Canada’s entry data at the land border would serve as the U.S. exit data, and vice-versa. Much as at the U.S. side of the land border currently, American and Canadian travelers would not be required to give fingerprints, but other entrants would. Such data would be valuable to both countries, primarily for the immigration control purpose of ensuring that temporary visitors do not overstay their admissibility. And it would be obtained at a fraction of the cost of a U.S.-only exit system. Congress should accept such an arrangement as fulfilling the mandate for biometric exit at the land borders.
The other big payoff from a perimeter security strategy is the reduction of cross-border transaction costs for business in what remains the single most important U.S. trading relationship, with Canada. Similar discussions are also under way with Mexico, and while the southern border is a more complex environment, many of the same commercial challenges exist there as well.
Since the flurry of activity in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there has been much talk of creating a “smart border” but minimal progress. A perimeter security deal with Canada would finally be another big step forward.
Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11.