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Region Continues to Pay for Failure in US-Canada Relations

This time next year, when you think of taking the family up to Canada for a visit, or go on your own trip for business, you could find yourself waiting in lines of seven or eight hours duration at Blaine while totally superfluous paperwork is handled by Immigration and Naturalization (INS) officials. Something nearly as grim could await you at regional airports and waterfront piers.

The damage to cross-border transportation and to commerce with America’s biggest trading partner, not to mention the stress on individuals on both sides of a friendly international line, cannot be estimated. It will be worse than the bad old days before NAFTA and, perhaps, more of a bureaucratic burden for travelers headed north than they ever have experienced. It even may compound the traffic congestion in Seattle as trucks and cars held up at dawn along the Canadian border suddenly descend on Seattle’s Interstate-5 freeway corridor during morning rush hour.

The problem of illegal immigration is real, but Canada is hardly a big contributor to it. Of the 76 million Canadians entering our country last year, only 368 caused immigration problems serious enough to cause them to be sent home. The figure of Americans raising comparable difficulties in Canada actually was slightly larger: 913. Both figures, however, are negligible. The estimated total number of undocumented Canadians in the country is 120 thousand, which contrasts with 2.7 million from Mexico and other large numbers from Central American nations. And many of the Canadians are only “snow bunnies” who spend their winters in Florida or Arizona and pose no difficulties to INS or anyone else.

That is why nearly all pertinent Washington, DC officials last winter assured anyone inquiring that “the Canada mistake” would be corrected quickly. Accordingly, various concerned regional and commercial interests, such as truckers, bus companies and the tourism industry, stopped worrying. But instead of using the ten months since this problem was identified to fix it, the Clinton Administration and Congress simply moved on. Now, with INS preparing a trial of the new provisions at a border crossing along the St. Lawrence River, a new danger has arisen. As often happens with technical corrections to the law that somehow do not get made, the issue is becoming freighted with new concerns, such as European visas. Moreover, so many different legislative bills–some quite complicate–are before Congress to address the supposedly simple oversight that the matter may get delayed again. The little problem caused by haste is now becoming a big problem caused by procrastination.

It didn’t have to happen, and that it did indicates a failure of governments on both sides of the border. For example, if the Province of British Columbia had agreed to join with Washington and Oregon in a Cascadia Corridor Commission six years ago when then-Congressman John R. Miller persuaded Congress to authorize US participation, a mechanism would have been in place to monitor and help resolve a variety of such bi-national concerns. People throughout Cascadia would have had someone watching the regional store. But a traditional suspicion of the American government in the ruling New Democratic Party regime caused British Columbia to hold back support–and the Corridor Commission idea was put on ice.

But, honestly, there is plenty of blame on the entry-form matter to go around. Some cite neglect by the Washington congressional delegation, others the Clinton Administration or its Ottawa counterpart. Many think the INS has let the matter drag on because the new act will enable the agency–which is beleaguered by well-publicized inefficiencies and irregularities–to add legions of new employees to its sagging empire. After all, someone is going to have to process those millions of travelers and their forms.

It is a particular mystery why President Clinton has not been more interested in pushing INS on this issue. He usually takes more than his fair share of credit for NAFTA and now he wants Congressional approval to extend its provisions to more nations. He deserves support for that extension. But how can he sell the benefits of free trade elsewhere in the hemisphere if the US allows such nasty annoyances to develop in the cross-border free trade pact that preceded the others? The President and Congress need to get this matter resolved promptly with a simple technical amendment. Travelers–and voters–stuck in endless traffic lines at the border or in long airport queues will not look kindly on government officials who helped place them there. That is especially so when no commensurate public purpose is being served.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.