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Beyond the Border – A U.S.-Canada Perimeter Security Program

The U.S.-Canadian border extends some 5,500 miles. Compared to its southern counterpart, the northern border historically was understaffed and lacked the necessary infrastructure to adequately screen individuals and goods coming to the United States. The United States and Canada averted disaster in 1999, when the Millennium Bomber, Ahmed Ressam, was caught attempting to enter the United States from Canada with a car laden with explosives. But the U.S. approach to the northern border did not change significantly until 9/11.

The terrorist attacks triggered a virtually complete closing of the border. Although the border quickly reopened, much tighter and more time-consuming security procedures were put in place. Recognizing the need to work to improve both security and efficiency, Washington and Ottawa have taken various measures over the years to better secure their common border. As early as December 2001, the two countries took the initial steps by signing the Smart Border declaration, which included a 30-point (later expanded to 32-point) plan ranging from trusted traveler programs to expedite the secure passage of people and goods (NEXUS and FAST) to biometric identifiers, to intelligence sharing, to infrastructure improvements. Ten years later, many of these initiatives have been implemented. Building on this progress, the United States and Canada have taken another significant and commendable step to increase the security of the border while simultaneously facilitating the flow of travel and commerce.

Yesterday, President Obama and Prime Minister Harper unveiled the details of an updated “Beyond the Border Initiative.” Among other elements, Beyond the Border promises to “create a shared responsibility between the United States and Canada concerning those entering the perimeter.” This concept of perimeter security has been a DHS goal since at least 2006. Components of the agreed-to perimeter security program – which will evolve in stages through 2014 – include: a common methodological and technological approach to screening travelers, including pre-travel screening and targeting; biographic and biometric information exchange, including watchlist, criminal history, and immigration violation data; and the establishment of an integrated entry and exit system such that the entry information from one country will constitute the exit information from the other.

Notable is that several of these measures mirror border security enhancements DHS implemented as part of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) modernization. For example, following the example of DHS’s successful rollout of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), Canada is planning to implement an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) of its own to screen visa-exempt foreign nationals. Similarly, the VWP now includes a requirement for participating countries to share watchlist and criminal history information with the United States.

Also related to the VWP – and perhaps helping to pave the way for future expansion of the program – is the decision to create an entry/exit system on the common land border, thereby helping to solve a problem that has long-vexed DHS. In particular, recording exits at the northern land border will enhance DHS’s already robust ability to identify individuals who have overstayed their period of admission. This, in turn, will enable the U.S. Government to take action against specific individuals (e.g., visa refusals or revocations, prohibiting VWP travel, etc.) as well as to determine overstay percentages by country.

Once fully implemented, the Beyond the Border Initiative will be yet another demonstration that enhanced security is fully consistent with growing travel and trade.

Dr. Marc Frey blogs primarily on homeland security policy, aviation and border security, law enforcement, and counterintelligence. Read More