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Sorry, Canada, once again we didn’t really mean it

Memo to Canadians: We certainly did not mean to insult you, so before the story gets out on your side of the border, please accept our assurances that it was all just a mistake. And come see us soon, y’hear?
Memo to U. S. border states tourist industry: No, your government is not trying to make your life more difficult; it just doesn’t know what it’s doing sometimes. (Big surprise.)

Memo to Congress and the Clinton Administration: You don’t need another international incident. Please fix this little problem pronto.

“This little problem” is the provision hidden in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act that Congress hurriedly passed last September 28 and President Clinton hurriedly signed September 30. Get it done before the election was the idea. Bipartisan blunder, it turns out.

Someone probably should have read the law before they adopted it. Greg Boos, an immigration attorney and Chamber of Commerce member in Bellingham, near the Canadian border at Blaine, did that. What he discovered as he pored through all 300 pages was that the new law apparently will require any Canadian coming across the border to stop, go inside the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) office, fill out an I-94 entry form and pay $6.00.

So here’s the nightmare prospect: lines of cars at the border that already tie up rush hour traffic suddenly stretch back for miles. People who thought that the Free Trade Agreement was supposed to ease commerce find it growing more onerous instead. Understaffed border officials become exhausted and cranky. Vancouverites who thought they’d head down to Seattle for a Mariners Game or a bit of theater think again and stay home–with their money. An annoyed Canadian government retaliates and makes Americans sign forms and pay six U.S. dollars ($7.85 Canadian) to go over the border on their way to Whistler Mountain or Butchart Gardens.

“It can’t be true!” groans Richard Smith, district director of the INS in Seattle when he is told about the act. “We have 32 million crossovers annually on this district’s part of the border,” he says “Think what it would mean to load them down with paperwork and fee payments.” Then he adds, “It isn’t practical. It’s just not going to happen.”

Poor Smith remembers all the grief he had to endure on the two occasions in the past two years when it was only proposed to charge admission for visitors coming over the border. Now there’s this law, not a mere proposal. He probably can imagine bonfires lighted under the Peace Arch and its motto, “Children of a Common Mother,” as mobs of Canadians join hands with their American brethren and burn I-94 forms in protest. (Of course, “Canadian mob” is an oxymoron, but maybe not in this case.)

Smith and his superiors back in Washington, D.C. acknowledge, when they read it, what Section 110 of the new Immigration Act says, and they do acknowledge the problem. Announcing a new “Automated Entry-Exit Control System,” the act declares plainly that it will “collect a record of every alien” coming in and out of the United States. “Every alien.” The normal exceptions for Canada just aren’t there. Nor is any waiver for the $6 fee.

At this point a potential argument emerges over whether the new law can be over-ridden by provisions of the Free Trade Agreement. Smith of INS hope so, Boos in Bellingham fears not. Smith thinks that the agreement might be considered an international treaty and that a court would hold that the new law’s extension to Canadian visitors “exceeds the authority of Congress.”

Boos says, “Unfortunately, the agreement is not a treaty for these purposes and the law is the law until it is amended. The term ‘every alien’ even removes the opportunity for administrative discretion.”

The good news is that the law allows two years’ lead time before full implementation. That gives Congress and the Administration a chance to clean up the act and make it conform to long-standing U.S-Canadian understandings.

While they are at it, they might look at Section 343 of the new law, which threatens to complicate, if not prevent, the presently easy trans-border work of “health care workers” other than doctors (i.e., nurses). Again, there are no exceptions in the act for long standing practices with Canada.

And when Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas follows through on his plan to draft a new bill on legal immigration now that the law on illegal immigration is on the books he might want to consult widely, including with Canadians. Some of America’s most productive citizens are immigrants, especially in crucial fields like technology. So, take your time, Congressman.

As the old Roman proverb says, “Nothing can be done at once hastily and prudently.” Come wait in the line at Blaine, even as it is, and you’ll see the point.

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.