x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Passport control concerns at Niagara Falls

Since passports became mandatory for most travelers crossing by land or water into the United States from Canada there is friction at the border at Niagara Falls.

United States Customs and Border Protection officer Helms checks the birth certificates of Canadian citizen Mike Bellefeuille and his passenger.
United States Customs and Border Protection officer Helms checks the birth certificates of Canadian citizen Mike Bellefeuille and his passenger.

RAINBOW BRIDGE, NEW YORK // With its multiple lanes of non-commercial traffic, this bridge has connected western New York state with south-eastern Ontario since November 1941. It serves as a divider between the American and Canadian cities of Niagara Falls, which are roughly two kilometres apart. But on June 1, the Rainbow Bridge, like all American land and sea border crossings, changed its requirements for anyone wanting to enter the US.

Citizens, residents and visitors from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean must now present a passport or machine readable documents, such as drivers licences and identity cards. Known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the law is part of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act passed by the US Congress. It followed a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission, which discovered vulnerability in the documentary requirements to enter the US.

Less than two years ago, Americans or Canadians wishing to cross here merely made an oral declaration of citizenship to a customs officer. That changed on Jan 1 2008 when the US Customs and Border Protection asked for proof of identity, including a government-issued card or a birth certificate. "Before June 1, we could see over 8,000 different types of documents on the primary line," said Kevin Corsaro, chief customs and border protection officer at the Buffalo, New York field office. "Many had limited or no security features."

He said customs officers had to input biographical data manually into a computer while spending time verifying lawful car ownership. The new regulations, however, eliminate that administrative function. Once machine-readable documents or those with a radio-frequency chip are scanned, the information is immediately presented on the screen. Cameras capture licence plates and now, customs officers carry guns.

Yet, there has been agonising over the changes in Canada. During a "conversation" between former US presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton in Toronto at the end of May, Frank McKenna, a former Canadian ambassador to the US, lamented the need for passports to cross the border. According to Mr McKenna, Canadians understand the arguments, but are still concerned. In his view, Canadians and Americans are not only neighbours but allies and friends who are owners of the world's largest trading relationship with CND$1.5 billion (Dh4.9bn) exchanged each day.

"We feel that's being torn apart now because of this," Mr McKenna said. "We feel a profound sadness at a relationship that's been so important." There are two reasons Canadians are most upset. The first is a persistent myth among policymakers in Washington that a few of the September 11 attackers arrived in the US from Canada. Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, repeated that this year before backtracking.

The actual breach occurred in late 1999 when Ahmed Ressam brought explosives to Port Angeles, in Washington state, from British Columbia, with the intent of blowing up Los Angeles International Airport. He was caught at the border. The second area of unease is the US's decision to treat its northern border the same as its southern border with Mexico. Canadian officials and commentators have pointed out that Mexico is home to thousands of drug-related murders and a robust kidnapping industry unlike such provinces as Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Their concerns have merit from an economic perspective. Roughly 150,000 cars and 400,000 people crossed the Canada-US border each day before June 1. More than 75 per cent of Canada's exports are shipped to the US. When slowdowns and shutdowns occur at the border, as happened after September 11, businesses incur severe losses. However, Mr Corsaro pointed out that the new law is designed to ease traffic.

"Not only are we securing the country, we're making it easier to enter once you obtain those documents." At Rainbow Bridge border crossing, customs officers said traffic moves much quicker since the new rules were implemented. Far from echoing the concerns of Mr McKenna and the media in Toronto, people entering the US were not that angry. "It makes sense," said Mary Barry of St Catharines, which is 21 kilometres from the bridge. "It's no big deal."

She said she was in the process of procuring passports for her children. While Mr Corsaro said the compliance rate was more than 95 per cent, two cars observed by The National did not possess the proper documentation. One car made a wrong turn and found itself at the border, while another couple from Niagara Falls, Canada, left their documents in another vehicle. In cases like these, customs officers give people an advisory that they are not compliant, and, if their citizenship and identity can be established, they are allowed to proceed.

Mr Corsaro said there is no cut-off date when people will be blocked from entry. Still, Aida Usher of Niagara Falls, accompanied by her son, Mark Kuo, followed the new regulations without hesitation. "You actually speed up the traffic," she said, "and I think it's safer for both countries." blambert@thenational.ae