Divided by a Common Border?

by Munroe Eagles

Munroe Eagles is Director of the Canadian Studies Academic Program and Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo.

On January 21st, 2015, the Republican-dominated House Committee on Homeland Security in Washington voted along party lines to pass the Secure our Borders First Act of 2015. The bill was introduced by Committee Chair Michael McCaul, a Republican Congressman who represents a district located just west of Houston. According to McCaul, the bill requires that the Secretary of Homeland Security “gain and maintain operational control of the borders of the United States.”

the Secure Our Borders First pocket cardThe “First” in the bill’s name suggests that secure borders should come before something else – in this case referring to President Obama’s executive action on immigration reform. As Rep. McCaul argued: “Our border must be dealt with through regular order and in a step-by-step approach – not through any type of comprehensive immigration reform. We must stop the bleeding at the border. The bill matches resources to needs, putting fencing where fencing is needed and technology where technology is needed. My constituents in my home district and my home state of Texas spoke loud and clear. They want the border secured.”

However popular the bill might have been among McCaul’s Texas constituents, critical reaction from the northern sections of the USA has been scathing. In particular, the bill’s provision requiring the positive identification using biometric markers of everyone leaving the United States has ignited a firestorm of criticism. Perhaps the loudest outcry came from Western New York/Southern Ontario, a binational region that is home to the busiest crossing points along the entire US/Canada border for travelers, and the second busiest for freight. In our region, the border is a maritime one and the bridges that span the Niagara River already create bottlenecks for freight and passengers. Already stressed by traffic volumes and security screening, the biometric identification provisions for those leaving the US will undoubtedly contribute to further congestion and delays at the bridges. According to Buffalo Congressman Brian Higgins (Democrat), whose proposed amendment to delay the implementation of the biometric identification requirement was rejected by the Committee, “this job-killing bill would effectively close the northern border and cripple key components of the U.S. economy, including manufacturing.”

the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls

The negative impact of the proposed legislation is likely to be particularly problematic for traffic crossing the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls (Ontario and New York) and the Peace Bridge that joins Fort Erie, ON with Buffalo, NY. These facilities are especially vulnerable since they are surrounded by urban centers. Ron Rienas, the General Manager of the Peace Bridge, argued that if passed, the identification requirement “…would absolutely shut down the border.” Rienas predicts that mandatory inspections of out-going traffic on the already-overcrowded US plaza of the bridge will cause bridge traffic to back up for miles onto area highways. As a result people simply would avoid crossing the border. For supporters of the bill, as with other border security related initiatives, these are local costs that are justified in light of the larger policy objectives at hand.

The Secure our Borders First Act of 2015 is just the latest in more than a decade of initiatives that have complicated the lives of residents living near the Canada-US border. Most of these measures have been initiated by the US and have been motivated by a desire to ‘secure the homeland.’ However, security is not the only objective with border policy. Recently, the very existence of the binational Peace Bridge Authority was called into question when the New York State Senate and Assembly passed a bill calling for its dismemberment into two national authorities. The Authority had drawn criticism from NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, who mistakenly blamed Canadian board members for hijacking the authority and directing all benefits to the Canadian side. While common sense eventually prevailed, existing legal agreements were upheld, and the insurrection was thwarted, the result of this fiasco was an erosion of the trust and comity on the bridge commission that had taken decades to cultivate. Once again we in the binational Niagara were at the mercy of external actors and we continue to pay a price for their interventions.

Regrettably, residents of the binational Niagara region have become accustomed to the incursions of outsiders in our lives. Since June 2009 those of us living in the Niagara borderlands have had to acquire and produce secure documentation – a passport, green card, NEXUS card, or an enhanced drivers’ license – to cross the border (something that had been done with a simple verbal declaration prior to September 2011). Now every time we do so we surrender our rights to privacy and risk arbitrary detention and search by over-zealous border officials who are terrified of being fingered as ‘the weak link’ in border security. The security measures have not only slowed crossings but they have added an element of uncertainty to every cross-border trip, since wait times can climb quickly and in relation to a variety of events (from Bills or Sabres games to holidays). On the American side, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are frequently seen in our communities gazing across the great lakes and the Niagara River that constitute our border. Canadian security officials are pressured to reciprocate and are often eager to demonstrate their commitment to border security. Drone over-flights, though less irritating and less obtrusive than the multiple low-level helicopter patrols that take place along the US side of the border, are also putting us ever more completely under the watchful eye of security officials. Life on the border isn’t what it used to be.

An unmanned drone patrols the US-Canadian border

The common theme in virtually all border-related initiatives is that they expose the vulnerability of border communities to a bewildering variety of external forces and actors. After all, the costs of their interventions fall disproportionately upon the residents of border communities. The apparent indifference of border policy makers to negative consequences of their decisions is not coincidental. Security is, after all, a ‘high politics’ issue – a part of foreign policy that is traditionally dominated by national political elites (or those who aspire to these positions). Moreover, borders are – almost by definition – peripheral institutions in most countries. As a result, in Canada and the US border policy is too often made in centers of power that are far away geographically from the border itself. In these circumstances, it is possible to discount the importance of problems whose impact is felt in distant localities. Further exacerbating the problem is the preoccupation among US policy elites with the Mexican border. All of this combines to diminish the significance of the concerns of border communities in the policy mix.

Residents of border regions have clearly lost control of major aspects of their lives. Most of us in the Niagara region wait nervously for the next terror attack in Canada or the US to see what further border-related setbacks we will be called upon to endure – and what negative implications will arise for the competitiveness of our cross-border businesses. Conceivably, border communities could and should be leading voices in the discourse intended to restore a sense of proportion and balance to security and border policy. Unfortunately, our nascent binational Niagara community that had been forming in the pre-9/11 years has been immobilized and its putative leadership demoralized by the dominance of external actors and interests. And since 2001, when the border security bandwagon was launched, the excessive fragmentation of political authority in the local borderland community has rendered the region powerless in the play of forces driving the border policy agenda.

Our region, like so many along the Canada-US border, needs to have a voice in the ongoing border policy discussion if our unique experiences, insights, and vulnerabilities are to be considered and respected. The negative externalities of misguided and over-zealous border policies enacted are simply too pervasive to be tolerated. This possibility requires that someone or some organization step into the void to proactively and systematically articulate the binational region’s shared interest in the border policy discussion.

Sadly, no one or no organization has yet responded to this need. Until this happens, we will continue to be disempowered, inconvenienced, and divided by our common border.

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