A much different picture at northern border: Canada
Mason Stockstill, Staff Writer

In the years he’s worked for the Border Patrol, Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Joseph Giuliano has come to appreciate the differences between the northern and southern U.S. boundaries.
Giuliano, who oversees the Border Patrol’s Blaine Sector in Washington state, has worked at both the Canadian and Mexican borders. While they are guarded in different ways, Giuliano said there’s one thing they have in common.

"I’m pretty confident that this border sees the same level of security as most of the major parts of that border down there," he said.

The northern border is nearly 4,000 miles of often wide-open space that differs from the southern border as much as a jungle differs from an ice floe. It’s a region stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans, touching 13 states (not including Alaska), 12 national parks and forests, four Indian reservations, 18 international bridges and four of the five Great Lakes. The border is demarcated by thousands of small monuments established and maintained by a binational commission.

Similarly, the enforcement picture at the U.S.-Canada juncture bears only a passing resemblance to the way the Border Patrol operates down south. Because the physical landscape at the northern divide is rugged in many places, about 1,000 agents patrol it – compared to nearly 10,000 at the southern border.

Many people see those numbers as evidence the northern border is poorly guarded – especially since it’s twice as long as the southern border, and that’s not including Alaska. But Giuliano said the opposite is true.

Near Canada, geography works to the Border Patrol’s advantage, he said. There are some locations where the wilderness is virtually impassable. Those limitations mean the Border Patrol is able to do more with less.

"All you have to do is look at the north Cascades ... to realize I just don’t need people standing shoulder-to-shoulder watching that border," Giuliano said.

Who’s coming in?
The border between the United States and Canada sees $1.4 billion in trade and some 300,000 people coming and going through ports of entry each day. Some of those people are immigrants; some are carrying cargo from one country to the other; and some are visitors who travel across the border on a regular basis.

"The Canadian economy and culture is much the same as ours here in the northern states," said Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat whose Michigan district borders Canada. "It’s not unusual for us to run over to Canada to take in a movie, get dinner or see a hockey game."

Immigration experts estimate only a fraction of illegal immigrants who come into the country do so through the northern border. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates out of roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, fewer than 500,000 are from Canada.

While that’s far fewer than the number of border-crossers entering from Mexico, when it comes to terrorism, the northern border presents a greater concern. Everyone in the anti-terror community remembers Ahmed Ressam, an al-Qaida operative who was arrested in 1999 after customs officials at the Port Angeles, Wash., inspection station found explosives in his car as he tried to enter the United States from Canada.

The Algerian-born Ressam told investigators he was going to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve as part of a planned al-Qaida attack that failed after he was caught. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Additionally, Canada’s own borders – including its long coastlines – are weakly guarded. According to a report from the Canadian Senate National Security Committee, one-man patrols staff many ports of entry, Coast Guard officers are unarmed and border officials are undertrained.

Canada’s airport screening is so poor that in 2004, more than 1,000 security officer uniforms and badges were stolen and later appeared for sale on eBay. Organized crime also is rampant at sea ports, according to the report.

"Port authorities are well aware that their facilities are riddled with criminals whose mission it is to open up holes for smuggling," the report states. "A vulnerability to criminals is, by definition, a vulnerability to terrorists."

A different kind of enforcement
With so much terrain to cover and fewer agents, the Border Patrol works the U.S.-Canada divide much differently than it does near Mexico, Giuliano said – even if the goals of the patrol don’t change.

"The fundamentals are the same. The philosophies are the same. The mission is the same," he said. "It’s the actual tactical application that differs."

Much of the technology is the same at both borders, though the northern sectors may use it differently, Giuliano said. For example, seismic intrusion sensors are more likely to be used at the southern border, while infrared sensors play the same role at some northern locations.

Additionally, U.S. agents work hand-in-hand with their Canadian counterparts to track potential drug smugglers or terrorists – a striking difference from the occasionally adversarial relationship between the Border Patrol and authorities in Mexico.

All told, the unique challenges of the northern border make enforcement a more strategic game than it is to the south, where brute force and sheer numbers are needed, Giuliano said.

"Down south, everybody is a lineman," he said, using a football analogy. "Up here, we’re more like linebackers. You drop back, watch for movement, respond to the movement, take care of it and bounce back to where you were before."

What more should be done?
Not surprisingly, officials said deploying more officers along the northern border would improve its security.

"Do we think it’s a pretty secure border? Yes," Stupak said. "Could it be more secure? Absolutely."

With so little enforcement, illegal immigrants are able to cross some areas undetected, said one northern border agent who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Along the four Detroit Border Patrol station sectors – Detroit, Port Huron, Sault St. Marie and Trenton – migrants enter through the commercial train tunnels between the two countries, the agent said.

Other illegal immigrants find their way through the waterways of the Great Lakes, as well as rivers and canals that wrap around Detroit.

"We don’t know who is coming in, or how many people," the official said. "We simply do not know, and have no way to assess this."

Stupak said the recently approved Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which will require passports to enter the United States from Canada or Mexico, is a step in the wrong direction.

Canada is the nation’s largest trade partner, but that trade will be impeded when traffic slows at the ports of entry as truck drivers and others have to show their passports every time they cross, he said.

More officers are needed, Stupak said, as well as better technology to monitor border crossings and an up-to-date list of suspected terrorists and possible criminal aliens.

"Even if you identify their country of origin, how does that add to security between our two countries?" he said.

It’s concerns like those that drove small Minuteman spinoff groups to launch minipatrols along the northern border in September and October. But those efforts produced few results – volunteers in Vermont struggled to locate the unmarked border, and at one point accidentally wandered across it into Canada, the Washington Post reported.

Many officials criticized the volunteers, saying there was little they could accomplish at the heavily forested northern border.

"While I recognize the Minutemen’s desire to help with (border enforcement), their efforts are simply not the solution," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., in a statement. "Their presence will only distract from border officials’ work to monitor and secure our border."

The experience of the Minuteman patrols near the Canadian border, as opposed to the occasionally warm reception they found in places such as Arizona, drives home how starkly different the picture at the northern border is.

"We don’t have the problems they face on the southern border, there’s no doubt about that," Stupak said. "But because of that, you can’t let your guard down, either."