US-Canada: The longest undefended border, but for how long?

US-Canada: The longest undefended border, but for how long?
7 min read
03 Apr, 2017
Comment: Refugees fleeing President Trump's immigration bans are attempting to reach Canada. But crossing the border is increasingly treacherous, for Canadians and asylum seekers alike, writes Antonia Zerbisias.
A Syrian man is handcuffed by Canadian police at the US-Canada border [AFP]

There was once a time when discussion of Canada's border with the US often saw it mentioned as "the world's longest undefended border."

It's virtually impossible to police 6,426 kilometres of water, woods, mountains and prairie, covered for almost half the year in snow and ice.

So easy was it to travel between countries, "cross-border shopping" was practically Canada's national sport. We'd shuffle off to the Buffalo malls for a day to scoop up the stuff we'd seen advertised on US TV. The only risk was sneaking past customs officials when you overspent your duty-free quota. Many learned how to strategically layer new clothing under their puffy parkas.

But Canada's relatively weak dollar has put paid to those sprees. American goods are too pricey to be worth the bother of driving down south and enduring the tough new scrutiny and long line-ups to get through.

Before 9/11, Canadians needn't have flashed more than a driving licence. Traffic ways, business or leisure, flowed freely and easily at official border crossings - and sometimes in between. 

But since the towers fell, Canadians have had to produce passports and, if they were unlucky enough to share a Muslim name with a suspected terrorist on a "deemed high profile" no-fly list, they would be held up even if they were Canadian-born, wearing a Montreal Canadiens hockey sweater - and just six years old.

Still, with Canada and the US being each other's most important trading partners, some 400,000 people never stopped crossing daily, by road, rail, waterway or air.

At airports and land crossings, Canadians are faced with surly US border guards confiscating their electronic devices and demanding their social media passwords

But now, talk of the border has changed. Canadians are using language borrowed from the decades before the US Civil War, when African-American slaves were on the run to freedom in the north. Phrases such as "safe houses" and "underground railroad" are once again describing the network of human rights organisations and church groups helping Muslim refugees get into Canada.

These refugees - officially "asylum migrants" - are fleeing President Donald Trump's immigration bans, the ones he imposed on people entering from seven (now six) Muslim majority nations.

The numbers are revealing. Media and government reports are that, in January and February, 677 asylum seekers crossed just from New York state to the province of Quebec. Adding those in western provinces brings the total nationally to 1,134. In all of 2016, a total of 2,464 entered seeking asylum. Officials expect that, when spring thaw comes, there will be a flood of refugees.

Which is why Canada's newsfeeds are filled with heart-breaking photos of Canadian Border Services agents lifting up toddlers while their families trudge through knee-deep snow. Tiny border towns are overwhelmed with refugees who have lost all their fingers to frostbite as they wandered through frozen forests.

As one Canadian official told The New York Times, "The farmers are worried about what they're going to find when the snow melts."


These migrants are making their desperate flights because Canada and the US have a Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires refugee claimants to seek protection in the first safe country in which they land.

Because of that, and only with a few exceptions, people rejected by the US can't arrive at Canada's border crossings or airports, request asylum and expect to get it. And so they risk life and limb to sneak across the landscape in remote rural areas.

Meanwhile, Canadian citizens don't have it as easy as they used to. They are being detained, interrogated and rejected at the US border as they try to get to spas, athletics events, the Washington Women's March - if they are Muslim, if they look Muslim or just because they are gay.

At airports and land crossings, Canadians are faced with surly US border guards confiscating their electronic devices, demanding their social media passwords, interrogating them about their friends and contacts.

And sure - a Canadian has the constitutional right to refuse, and walk away. But just try to get back into the US after doing so.

To make matters worse, Justin Trudeau's Liberal government is about to pass Bill C-23, officially the Preclearance Act, 2016, which will beef up the powers of US border agents on Canadian soil in Canadian airports. This would mean that a Canadian - who while still in Canada, exercises their right not to be subject to an interrogation - might face arrest for refusing to cooperate.

Curiously, a recent Canadian Press report suggests that, between October and February, fewer Canadians were being refused entry into the US than were being held and/or turned away during the same five-month period in 2015-2016.

The Girl Guides of Canada, on the other hand, have cancelled all future field trips

According to US government statistics, which are the best available right now, the refusal rate of travellers attempting to cross from Canada has dropped from 0.06 percent to 0.05 percent.

But maybe that's because fewer people overall are travelling to the US, as those same statistics show.

That drop could be due to the unfavourable exchange rate for the Canadian dollar. Or, to Canadians' unwillingness to get held up on suspicion of being brown and Muslim. Or maybe - as many Canadians are saying - no matter what their colour or religious affiliation, they aren't heading south until Trump is out of the White House. They'll vacation in Cuba instead.

No wonder a number of organisations have announced that they're staying home. 

The public Toronto District School Board, which counts 245,000 students in Canada's biggest city, says that children, many of whom are Muslim, "should not be placed into these situations of potentially being turned away at the border". Although it will proceed with 24 previously planned trips, if one child with proper documentation is turned away, the entire group will not cross.

The Girl Guides of Canada, on the other hand, have cancelled all future field trips.

Trudeau has, as he is known to do, exploited the opportunity to polish Canada's - and his own - international image

Despite the apparent decrease in the number of border rejections, immigration and human rights experts believe that the statistics don't tell the whole story. For example, Canadian officials don't know how many travellers have been detained, questioned, their persons searched, their phones seized and scoured.

Some feel that US Border Patrol agents are throwing their weight around because they've been emboldened by the fact that their union was one of the few labour organisations to endorse Trump.

But to Canadian legal experts, it's a sell-out of national sovereignty to US government employees who are being granted complete authority over Canadian travellers still on the Canadian side of the border line.

But Bill C-23 hasn't even passed and still people on both sides of the border are being held and harangued.

One Iraq-born Canadian, along with his American wife, also born in Iraq, were visiting his parents in Canada from their home in Michigan when news of the first Trump Muslim travel ban came out. They cut their trip short and hurried back, only to be held overnight at the border.

US officials would not allow the husband back home, although he had appropriate documentation and is a Canadian citizen. If it hadn't been for his wife - an American immigration lawyer - he might have never returned home. 

Trudeau has, as he is known to do, exploited the opportunity to polish Canada's - and his own - international image. In the aftermath of the initial Trump #MuslimBan, the Canadian prime minister tweeted: "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada."

But, apparently, a tweet is not worth the paper it isn't written on. 

Just days later, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, himself once a Somali refugee, said that there were no government plans to raise Canada's refugee intake, now set at a historic high of 40,000.

That could be because, sadly, polls indicate that many Canadians feel Ottawa should hold the line on refugees, or even send them back. 

Meanwhile, the opposition Conservatives, now in the midst of a fierce leadership race, are playing to their xenophobic base by promising to screen immigrants for "Canadian cultural values" and deploy Canadian troops to keep refugees from entering.

And so, the world's longest undefended border could become a khaki wall - on one side or the other, or both - while trade, tourism and desperate people are sacrificed to indefensible politics.

Toronto-based Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning columnist and broadcaster. She has been employed with both the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Canada's largest daily newspaper, the Toronto Star while contributing to many other publications, online and in print.

Follow her on Twitter: @AntoniaZ

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.