Better Border Logic

Posted April 16, 2010, at 6:54 p.m.

The Obama administration has adopted a more sophisticated approach to finding potential terrorists trying to board airplanes. It should have a similar plan for land border crossings.

Instead, everyone who crosses the border between Canada and the United States is seen as a potential threat, which not only inconveniences innocent travelers, but also diverts attention from some of those who may merit close scrutiny.

Given the long border between the two countries and the terrorists’ desire to get to the United States, vigilance along the Canadian border is necessary. But that vigilance can go too far.

It is hard to see how detaining families that have mistakenly crossed the border — yes, this is possible in northern Maine where the border for generations was meaningless — enhances U.S. security.

A family from New Brunswick was stopped last month when they crossed the border to visit a farmhouse near Perth-Andover, New Brunswick. Although the house was in Canada, the road they were on crossed through the United States to get there. A U.S. Border Patrol agent stopped the truck and said that family members were being arrested and that the truck would be seized, according to a story in the Telegraph Journal, which was reprinted in the Bangor Daily News.

The family was detained for four hours in nearby Fort Fairfield, according to the newspaper account.

Why, wondered the region’s representative to Parliament, Mike Allen, didn’t the Border Patrol simply explain the situation and ask the family to turn around?

Because, according to David Astle, assistant chief patrol agent with the Houlton Border Patrol Sector, “after 9/11, our mission included that we needed to prevent terrorists and illegal weapons crossing into the U.S.”

If Border Patrol agents can’t tell the difference between confused families and terrorists, we should all fear for the country’s future.

At a more local level, we should be concerned that barriers — physical and mental — that separate families and communities that have long operated as one will be difficult to remove. Putting up additional barriers between the northern U.S. and Canada will, on an emotional level, slowly push cross-border communities farther apart.

On an economic level, slowing trade by requiring more paperwork and doing more inspections — some of which may be unnecessary — is a dangerous move.

With more sophisticated consideration of who and what truly poses a threat to the U.S., trade doesn’t have to be hindered and cross-border community life doesn’t have to be disrupted.

Just as it did for airline passengers, the Obama administration needs a better policy for dealing with land border crossings.

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