Thursday, October 8, 2009

Borders and Migration: Erecting Fences On the Canadian Border

BROOKLYN, New York -- Borders are never as straight and bright as they appear on maps. They are messy. They are uneven. Due to a whole lot of messiness - in the form of the drug trade, illegal immigration, arms smuggling, and a vicious war between drug cartels and the government - a lot of attention is being paid to the US-Mexico border. But changes are also taking place along America's northern frontier, and they deserve attention and concern.

Earlier this week, authorities erected gates along the border in the towns of Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec. The two towns are essentially one - due to an incorrect survey, the American town was founded north of the 45th parallel. When the border was corrected, nobody saw the need to move the town, so the border line runs through homes and streets, and even through the town's lone public library. American authorities decided last year to clean up the warren of streets that crisscross the border by erecting these gates which will force travelers to move through designated border crossings.

This summer I visited Derby Line, and I went poking around the border to see what changes had been made. The library was closed that day, so I could not go and see the border line painted on the floor, but I did see some shiny new signs advising me to turn back and go through the crossing. When I did turn my car around, I was bombarded by sirens from the border post. When I pulled over, the visibly angry American agent accused me of illegally crossing from Canada and threatened me with a $5,000 fine. When I told him I had made a wrong turn, he lectured me some more and then directed me to the Canadian border crossing, where I continued on my way to Quebec City.

Apparently, turning a small, remote Vermont town into Belfast or Nicosia is what we must endure to be safe from terrorists. While some increased security measures may be necessary along the Canadian border, the problem is that the logic of these changes focuses entirely on security without acknowledging the other impacts of the border. Rather than a zone of interaction, the border is seen as a barrier to keep people out of the United States, thus completely ignoring trans-border social and economic relations.

Fear mongers in the Bush administration like former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff pushed for draconian border measures, even suggesting that British citizens of Pakistani origin should be subjected to stricter passport controls than other Britons. The new DHS chief, Janet Napolitano, has not softened the line when it comes to the US-Canadian border. She has repeatedly stated that she wants the border with Canada treated like the border with Mexico: hardened, strengthened, and more closely monitored.

This has had dire economic impacts, especially along the highest-traffic section of the border, that between Michigan and Ontario. Over the past few decades, the American Big Three automakers have have built up networks of production facilities and suppliers that capitalize on certain cost advantages on both sides of the border. NAFTA only accelerated this trend, and last year, Ontario surpassed Michigan as the world's largest auto producing region. Stricter border controls have hampered this model, and this has been a contributing factor to the uncompetitiveness of North American-built cars; the result has been that the recession and unemployment have cut deepest in these two regions. Here's one example of this impact from the Economist last year:
Now the stickier border is adding to the troubles of Detroit's uncompetitive carmakers. A ship carrying 4,000 cars from Asia landing on the west coast of the United States undergoes just one inspection; the components in a car made in North America will, all told, have gone through thousands, notes Jayson Myers of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, an industry body.
Conservatives harp on the point (listen to Bill Kristol's points here) that President Obama's positions on many issues related to national security have been and will remain largely unchanged from the policies of the previous president. They see this as a vindication of the their beliefs and proof that history will look kindly upon the Bush presidency. What this opinion fails to acknowledge is that security policy is more often driven by inertia and fear than by reason. It is always easier build a border fence than to tear one down, for fear of accusations of being "soft" on crime or terrorism or illegal immigration. Dick Cheney repeats this line over and over again, maintaining that illegal renditions, vicious torture, and various other war crimes keep us all safe at night. Add to this list the requirement that Americans and Canadians carry passports to cross the border. It is impossible to know how Barack Obama would have reacted had he been president on September 11, 2001, but it is patently absurd to claim that the Bush administration took the best course of action given the circumstances.

This is not to discount the fact that suspects who were plotting terrorist attacks have been apprehended while trying cross the border from Canada, the most notable being Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millenium Bomber, who was arrested in Washington state in December 1999. However, I believe that many of these border policies are driven by a piece of mythology about the September 11 attacks. In the days and weeks following the attacks, reports began circulating that some of the hijackers had entered the US from Canada. As it turned out, the two men who flew from Portland, Maine to Boston and then hijacked the Los Angeles-bound Flight 11, crashing it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center - Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari - had long been residing in the United States. None of the hijackers sneaked across a land border; they all traveled here by air and entered the country legally. Nonetheless, the mystique of this erroneous report remains, and it contributed greatly towards transforming our land borders, both literally and rhetorically, into front lines in the Global War on Terror.

For a good portion of America's history, the border with Canada has been an area of conflict and division. In addition to the American Revolution and the War of 1812, when Americans twice invaded Canada, the two countries have fought a number of other small conflicts, including the Aroostook War, the Pig War and the Fenian Raids. In hindsight, these incidents seem preposterous, but we are continuing to move on a path towards greater division and securitization of a region that should be a zone of interaction and cooperation between our two countries. Unfortunately, border policy is formulated and implemented at a national scale, directed from Washington, and successive administrations have shown an inability to consider the local-scale impacts of a tightened border. Maybe we should start listening to the residents of Derby Line instead of Dick Cheney.

Well, not this resident. Nobody should listen to him:

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