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Cooperation at the Canada-U.S. Border: Confronting Challenges and Measuring Progress

The Canada Institute hosted a meeting exploring how northern states and Canadian provinces have worked bilaterally to comply with the provisions of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. The event featured a keynote luncheon with remarks from Stewart Baker, Assistant Secretary for Policy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Date & Time

Dec. 4, 2008
10:30am – 3:15pm

Cooperation at the Canada-U.S. Border: Confronting Challenges and Measuring Progress

Meeting the challenge of complying with the provisions of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) while maintaining the free-flow of goods, services, and people across the border, remains a daunting challenge for both the Canadian and U.S. governments. On Thursday, December 4, the Canada Institute hosted a meeting exploring how northern states and Canadian provinces have worked bilaterally to meet new U.S. travel requirements. The event featured a keynote luncheon with remarks from Stewart Baker, Assistant Secretary for Policy of the U.S. Department on Homeland Security.

During his speech, Baker said that while the United States continues to move toward the implementation of an advanced information-based screening system for Canadians wanting to enter the United States, there is another approach to security that may be more appealing to both countries. That option, noted Baker, would involve shifting the emphasis of security screening from the U.S.-Canada border to those entering both countries from abroad. While such an approach has some appealing characteristics over screening at the U.S.-Canada border, it would require the United States and Canada to harmonize much of their immigration and security policies, in addition to vastly increase the sharing of information. Baker admitted, however, that the political and sovereignty issues that would emerge through policy harmonization could prove politically untenable in both countries and would likely not be seriously considered as a result.

Border Solutions at the Sub-National Level

Developing an efficient and secure northern border will require thinking beyond the traditional security and economic dichotomy, said Kathryn Bryk Friedman of the University at Buffalo Regional Institute. She maintained that the provision included in the WHTI that allows documents other than passports to be acceptable at border crossings inadvertently opened the door to regional solutions to solve border problems. The bilateral development of Enhanced Driver's Licenses (EDLs) among states and Canadian provinces serves as a prominent example of the cooperation currently taking place.

The development of the State of New York's EDL, which was developed and implemented in under a year, could offer lessons to other states and provinces attempting to develop their own licenses. According to Wayne Benjamin of the State of the New York's Department of Motor Vehicles, EDLs are a central component of the state's strategy to comply with WHTI while maintaining an efficient flow of goods, services, and people across the northern border. The use of EDLs is expected to cut between six to eight seconds off typical border crossing times, said Benjamin. He also said that EDLs will allow border agents more time to question those they deem to be suspicious, and will also reduce pollution by reducing wait times at border crossings. Demand for EDLs has been high initially, said Benjamin, noting that the State of New York has already issued more than 11,000 EDLs since they became available two and a half months ago, and has generated more than $300,000 for the State of New York.

Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom (State of Washington) Chamber of Commerce and Industry maintained that the business community has viewed EDLs as a means of minimizing the economic repercussions of the WHTI. He cited the Business for Economic Security Tourism and Trade (BESTT) coalition as very actively involved in raising awareness of the vital economic relationship between Canada and the United States, and argued that BESTT continues to work to ensure that public policies designed to improve border security do so in a manner that mitigates the economic impact to both countries as much as possible. Oplinger noted that the State of Washington has done much more to follow through on the development and implementation of its EDL than its neighbor British Columbia.

Oplinger also cited several remaining challenges that must be addressed as northern states and Canadian provinces attempt to find a balance between security and economic aims. He urged public officials in the United States to acknowledge that the challenges facing the country's northern and southern borders are different, and that future U.S. border policies should reflect these differences. He also stressed that infrastructure along the northern border must be bolstered, and said that Canadian and U.S. officials must continue to work to improve information sharing between governments in an effort to maintain border efficiency. Freidman also stressed that federal officials in Canada and the United States must recognize that differences in regional trade flows across the northern border demand flexible public policies, and should not attempt to move forward with future legislation that offers a "one size fits all" border policy approach.

Federal Perspectives on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

All the pieces are in place to successfully meet the June 9, 2009 deadline to fully implement the WHTI, said Colleen Manaher of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The development and implementation of EDLs have been integral to successfully meeting the provisions of new U.S. travel requirements, said Manaher. She maintained that EDLs, embedded with an RFID tag, represented the best approach to facilitate border crossings in a secure and efficient manner. Manaher stated that the border infrastructure necessary to read RFID technology is already in place at major border crossings in Blaine, Nogales, Buffalo, and Detroit. Several other border crossings, including Brownsville, Otay, Mesa, and Tecate, are currently in the process of being equipped with RFID-reading technology.

Also key to the WHTI's success has been CBP's efforts to educate Americans about the new travel provisions. She noted that CBP has used multiple forms of media to engage the U.S. public including television, radio, and print ad campaigns, the launch of a user friendly WHTI website, and public outreach efforts in border communities. CBP has also contributed to informing Canadians of the coming WHTI deadline through the launch of an ad campaign broadcast nationally in Canada.

Offering a Canadian perspective, Janet Rumball of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) stated that the Canadian government is working very hard to ensure legitimate trade and travel continues to flow across the border. Rumball stated that the WHTI task force within CBSA has a very close working relationship with CBP, which has helped Canada prepare for the full implementation of the WHTI provisions. Like the United States, Canadian provinces are also moving forward with their own EDLs, noting that Quebec, Manitoba, Ontario, and British Columbia each plan to implement an EDL program in advance of the June 1, 2009 WHTI deadline. Rumball maintained that Canada should be well prepared for the upcoming WHTI deadline, stating that 52 percent of Canadians already have a valid passport, Canadian enrollment in pre-clearance programs such as Nexus continues to increase, and the Canadian government has been actively involved in informing Canadians of the looming WHTI deadline through a multimedia campaign since June of 2008.

Though progress has been made, several lessons can be taken away from attempts by U.S. officials to fully implement WHTI, said Angelo Amador of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. First and foremost, noted Amador, is to take measures to ensure that border policies are implemented correctly the first time. All too often, border policies are implemented without prior consultation with private sector stakeholders or having conducted the appropriate studies in an effort to avoid potential economic drawbacks. Amador said that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security often forgets that one of its stated priorities is to ensure that security policies do not have a negative impact on the economic security of the United States. While much has been done right in implementing WHTI, more economic analysis should be done before the June 2009 deadline to ensure the legislation has a minimal impact on the economy of the United States, said Amador.

Drafted by Ken Crist, Program Associate, Canada Institute

Hosted By

Canada Institute

Bound by common geopolitical interests and strong economic and cultural ties, Canada and the United States enjoy the world's most successful bilateral relationship. The Wilson Center's Canada Institute is the only public policy forum in the world dedicated to the full spectrum of Canada-U.S. issues. The Canada Institute is a global leader for policymakers, academics and business leaders to engage in non-partisan, informed dialogue about the current and future state of the relationship.     Read more


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