Border Relief?

Summer 2001 CSANews Issue 39  |  Posted date : Mar 09, 2007.Back to list

Hope comes in the form of an announcement that a joint study group will look at how to open the borders and create more of a North American community. The announcement was made at the July 31 meeting of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) Commission.

"In the last few years, those of us crossing the border into the U.S. by water - even if we crossed frequently - were harassed by Coast Guard patrol boats and the RCMP," says Canadian Snowbird Association president Bob Jackson. "It got so bad I didn't go into the U.S. for almost two years."

It's not an uncommon story for many snowbirds who've been subjected to enforcement checks, ostensibly to root out terrorists and drug smugglers. But there now appears to be some relief on the horizon for Canadians when it comes to crossing the 4800-kilometre Canada-U.S. border.

Paul Cellucci, U.S. ambassador to Canada, observes that "an aging and outdated infrastructure and regulatory system is still in existence at our borders."

For her part, Canada's Minister for Citizenship and Immigration Elinor Caplan is adamant that she does not foresee that Canada and the U.S. will, in her lifetime, move to European-style open borders. She does say, though, that the Canadian government wants to do everything it can to co-operate with the U.S. to speed up border crossings for travellers as well as for trade.

Things have been moving, albeit slowly, in the direction of an agreement between the two countries. This began in 1995, when President Bill Clinton signed an accord with Prime Minister Jean Chretien to pursue a new border "vision."

There were snags along the way, notably the controversial Section 110 of the U.S. Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act proposed in 1996. Lobbyists persuaded the Clinton administration to eventually scrap the legislation, which would have required that every individual crossing the border be stopped for an electronic background check.

Instead, U.S. customs inspectors were given complete discretion as to whom they allowed into the country with virtually no chance for travellers to appeal, should entry be refused. In many cases, 'improper' documentation has been cited when entry is refused.

"People over the years have asked me what sort of documents they should take to get across the border and I always tell them I can't answer that," says immigration lawyer and CSA advisor Wallace Weylie. "I can't answer that because all these inspectors have their own rules. It's an impossible situation."

However, one innovative test program that could go a long way toward easing this problem was launched at the Sarnia, Ontario/Port Huron, Michigan crossing in November 2000. Called NEXUS, it is designed to simplify border crossings for pre-approved, low-risk travellers.

Under the program, U.S. and Canadian citizens who do not have criminal convictions can obtain a NEXUS identification card. The card allows them to use dedicated lanes that normally will not require routine customs and immigration questioning. A single NEXUS card is valid for travel in both directions, and there is no fee charged.

Other initiatives under the Shared Border Accord include a joint pilot program to make border crossings more streamlined for travellers in both countries. That will be achieved by merging border control offices and staff from both countries. One project is already underway between Alberta and Montana. There are plans for similar facilities to be built at crossings between British Columbia and Washington and between the Yukon and Alaska.

"This pilot project is to see if we can provide hassle-free access to the legitimate traveller by not duplicating," Elinor Caplan says. "If you don't have to stop people twice, the legitimate traveller benefits and the person trying to evade detection can be caught."

Canada and the U.S. are also considering new regulations that would confer "guest worker" status on citizens of both countries, who could then earn citizenship based on length of employment. That could have implications down the road for snowbirds who want to work while temporarily residing in the U.S.

Experts say that if the borders are eased, the countries will need to harmonize a range of policies from immigration and energy to policing and visitors' visas. Meanwhile, proposed U.S. reforms are likely to be put in motion this fall following the September 5 visit to Washington by Mexican President Vicente Fox. Fox is expected to sign a border and immigration agreement with U.S. President George W. Bush, and Canada will be watching closely.