Security, commerce vie on US-Canada border

A plan to register all non-Americans entering the US from Canada may challenge balance of trade versus safety.

There are many ways to judge the fluidity of traffic across the US-Canada border, but one of the best is business at Perani's Hockey World in this community just across the river from Detroit.

About 80 percent of the store's sales come from American players who travel across border to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate. And business has been very good of late.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year, business fell sharply. But that seems like ancient history now, says salesperson Chris McDonald, flanked by hundreds of hockey sticks. "It was bad for that first month. The backup at the border was three or five hours for a while. But it picked up and it hasn't stopped. In fact, we're busier than ever. A lot of our customers say it is easier now than it was even before 9/11."

The Detroit-Windsor border is an example of what happens when fears of terrorism and the wish for tighter borders come face to face with the need for cross-border commerce, namely, an attempt to balance the two.

But that delicate equilibrium is facing challenges. In October last year, the US Congress passed a bill requiring that all non-Americans participate in a registration system upon entering the US from Canada. Following talks last week with Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, Canada's Deputy Prime Minister expressed concern over the plan, noting that such an intricate process could snarl up the ease of freight and transportation at the two most vital portals of commerce between the two nations.

The US, too, is keen to keep goods flowing between the two borders. The two crossings here, the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, combined with the Blue Water Bridge in nearby Port Huron, Mich., handle about 35 percent of the roughly $1.5 billion in trade that passes between the two countries daily. The Ambassador Bridge sees more commerce cross the border than any other point in the country.

But the US is also mindful of the need to prevent terrorists slipping over the border from its quiet neighbor. In December of 1999, for instance, an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Washington after attempting to smuggle a van load of explosives into the US.

For now, at least, the border agents are trying to maintain the balance between trade and security by employing more personnel, technology, and greater profiling of those traveling across the bridges.

"The crossing is very important for the auto sector and to trade in general because of NAFTA," says Kevin Weeks, director of Field Operations in Michigan for the US Customs Service. "Up until 9-11, most of the focus and the technology was on the southern border. We have a lot more up here now and basically we do a much more efficient job and much quicker job."

The Detroit area has huge cross-border traffic for several reasons. The auto industry is much bigger than the Motor City itself. Every assembly line is supported by a small army of partsmakers, sitting on both sides of the border here. Casino gambling in Windsor and the exchange rate bring day-trippers across. And many people live on one side and work on the other.

In response, the US government staffed the border with more customs agents and brought in equipment that can X-ray entire truckloads. And this month the US and Canadian government will implement the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program that will work with manufacturers and trucking companies to speed shipments through with prescreening. Backups for truckloads are still common on the Ambassador Bridge, but the waits are much shorter.

Beyond commercial traffic though, passenger vehicles cross the border here seemingly more easily than they have in years. Lines still exist on Saturday nights when cars full of young people look to spend an evening in Windsor where the legal drinking age is 19.

But on off-hours many drivers shoot across without even presenting a driver's license. And radio commercials from Canadian storeowners tell Americans the border is back to normal and beckon them to come across and spend their American dollars.

Still, crossing with ease can be a hit or miss proposition.

Much, says Weeks, is left up to the individual customs agents who look for non-verbal cues and who, he admits, pay more attention to certain ethnic types. There are large Arab-immigrant populations on both sides of the border.

And there is more than just agents' discretion at work. Closer monitoring of license plates has resulted in a 25 percent increase in arrests at the border on all kinds of warrants. And a new prescreening program for passenger vehicles, NEXUS, goes into place here in January.

But even now there is room for improvement, says Dan Cherrin of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. Though more booths are staffed now, all should be. And it still isn't always clear what is needed to cross the border - passport or birth certificate or driver's license. Tourism and gambling traffic are still down about 20 percent, he says.

"There are still times when we have an hour-long backup," Cherrin says. "When you have the kind of commerce we do at stake, that's not acceptable."

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