Stories warning Canadians about the potential for a “thickening” of the Canada-U.S. border have circulated among media outlets in both countries this month after a U.S. politician shared his concerns about the border.
Despite Democratic Rep. Lou Correa’s plan to have the House National Security Committee review security along the northern border, Christian Leuprecht, professor of political science at the the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, says Canadians shouldn’t worry.
“At no other border do the agencies on both sides have as much awareness of what goes on at the border both between and at ports of entry,” Leuprecht said. “If there were terrorists crossing at the northern border and they were not being apprehended, detained and prosecuted, presumably both agencies would be a complete failure.”
Correa shared his plan with U.S. news outlet Politico this month as U.S. President Donald Trump fixated on the country’s southern border with Mexico.
In response to the Trump administration’s claim that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stopped nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists from crossing the southern border in 2018, NBC published CBP data from that year that showed only six foreign nationals listed on the Terrorist Screening Database were stopped at that border.
NBC compared that number with the 41 foreign nationals listed on the terror database who were encountered at the Canadian border in the same year.
A week later, Politico reported that Correa and the Democrat-led House Homeland Security Committee plan to investigate the country’s porous border with Canada and examine whether the U.S. border agency is equipped to stop would-be terrorists in Canada from crossing the border unnoticed.
The story referenced the “long history of aspiring terrorists crossing into the U.S. from Canada,” then listed two incidents in 1987 and 1999 in which would-be terrorists were foiled as they attempted to cross the border.
Leuprecht, who has published research on the threat of terror along the Canada-U.S. border, told Yahoo Canada concerns about the Canadian border tend to resurface when interest in the southern border spikes, and are often politically driven.
This, he said, is partly because communities along the northern border benefit from new jobs in border patrol, which, in turn benefits politicians.
“Whenever there’s lots of attention on the southern border, there’s always a concern that all the money and the resources will go to the southern border,” he said.
Leuprecht said one of the ways politicians draw funding to the northern border is to draw attention to weaknesses there.
“The easiest way to get media attention in the U.S. is to make it appear as if there’s some sort of terrorist threat that emanates from the northern border,” he said.
The seemingly high number of foreign nationals entering the U.S. from Canada versus from Mexico, Leuprecht said, is partly due to the fact that Canada serves as a bigger hub for international travellers from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East than Mexico does, so a greater volume travellers is crossing the northern border.
And because some U.S. terror watch lists act as sort of a drag net, flagging people who may not present an actual terror threat, the data can misrepresent the threat level at the border.
Such databases list people who may have ties to terrorist networks based on their travel patterns, spending activities, family ties or other activities and communications.
The terror watch list is not necessarily a list of people who could be criminally charged with terrorist acts. And just because a person was intercepted at the border does not mean they were arrested.
“It’s relatively easy for people to get on these lists, and that’s what generates these numbers,” Leuprecht said.
Alan Bersin served as chief diplomatic officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and was appointed Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection by President Barack Obama in 2010.
Bersin told Yahoo Canada that rather than being cause for alarm, the fact that the terror watch list is so exhaustive is a sign of the strong intelligence-sharing relationship between border agencies in Canada and the U.S.
“We have developed a system that recognizes the threat and takes steps to prevent it and has succeeded, to date, in doing so,” Bersin said.
“Because we don’t have any evidence that people have crossed the border and have actually perpetrated terrorist incidents in the United States from either Canada or Mexico.”
The real threat
During his time as head of CBP, Bersin said that while migration issues dominated the southern border, the agency’s main concerns along the northern border were with transnational crime.
“On the northern border it was largely an issue with regard to certain kinds of drugs and other kinds of contraband,” he said “Which has been a staple along the U.S.-Canadian border back to the prohibition days when liquor was smuggled south from Canada into the United States.”
This sentiment is repeated in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Northern Border Strategy, which was updated in June 2018.
“The most common threat to U.S. public safety along the Northern Border continues to be the bi-directional flow of illicit drugs,” the report says.
“Transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are also active along the border and they continually adapt their drug production, smuggling methods, and routes to avoid detection by U.S. and Canadian law enforcement.”
Leuprecht believes it’s crime driven by profit rather than ideology that Canadians should be more concerned about, as fentanyl and cannabis continue to flow south into the U.S. and cocaine and guns continue to flow north into Canada.
“Canada lives next to the biggest weapons market in the world,” he said. “People are getting killed every day with weapons and ammunition and clips that were brought in from the United States.”
And because contraband items — and travellers on terror watch lists — usually flow through ports of entry and not between them, a “hardening” of the border might mean better sharing of intelligence.
Canadian and American border agencies sharing intelligence, Leuprecht said, is something people in Canada benefit from.
“The U.S. has ten times as many resources on the U.S. side of the Canadian border than we do on the Canadian side,” he said.
“So it means we can keep our country safe through this intelligence relationship because we have awareness of people who might pose a risk to North America that, because we have fewer resources, might not be on Canada’s radar.”