Border-crossing boondoggle

Businesses and tourists take note: Unless Congress takes action in the next two years, the borders between America and its neighbors will effectively close, thanks to an obscure bit of the 1996 immigration law.

While some Americans of an isolationist stripe believe closed borders to be beneficial, and many Canadians would privately regard a closed border with America to be a step in the right direction, it is worth considering how and why a piece of legislation, sneaked into a bill on a whim, is set to make crossing US land borders nearly impossible.

In 1996, Congress passed an omnibus law that affected nearly everything dealing with immigration, from asylum to welfare reform. Tucked in a corner of this law, inserted into the bill with no debate, is a provision that compels the INS to introduce an entry and exit control system "for every alien departing the United States, [matching] the records of departure with the record of the alien's arrival in the United States." The INS is required to implement such a system at land borders and seaports. Current law calls for a paper-based entry and exit control system, mainly at airports.

Our neighbors, particularly Canadians, who have been exempt from showing special documentation when entering the US, will be subject to the new requirements despite longstanding diplomatic agreements to the contrary. Actually getting across the border will be another matter altogether.

This new requirement might appear sensible. But no thought was given to the effect this provision, known as Section 110, would have on American businesses and trade. The system will cause mind-boggling delays at the borders for both people and transport.

Authorities who testified at recent Senate hearings said that even the best system would cause such long delays that the US borders would, in effect, shut down.

The Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor handles roughly 30,000 vehicle crossings per day. If the entry-exit procedures take only 30 seconds per vehicle, and if only half those vehicles have to go through the procedures - this is an optimistic scenario - it would cause 3,750 minutes more processing time per day than it takes now. With only 1,440 minutes in a day, this system will result in the closing of an already crowded border.

For industry, time is money. Activities such as automobile manufacturing, which are located on both sides of the border, will face increased costs from transport delays. It's certain this increased production cost will show up in the sticker price of US-made cars.

The US-Mexican border handles even more traffic. With 600,000 vehicle crossings per day and roughly 3.5 million trucks per year. With delays at this border arguably worse than those in the north, Americans can say good-bye to inexpensive produce in the markets.

The projected impact that a pilot program would have on the Thousand Islands Bridge between New York and Ontario would be delays of up to 2-1/2 days. The waiting line would stretch more than seven miles.

American states, and border areas in Canada and Mexico that rely on cross-border trade and tourism, will suffer. Michigan is Canada's largest trading partner and is one of the largest destinations of Canadian tourists. Roughly 2.75 million Canadians visit New York State for at least one night, spending over $400 million. If border inconveniences arise, those Canadians will likely spend their dollars elsewhere.

Congressional proponents of this law refuse to see the looming disaster. They claim that Section 110 will aid in the fight against terrorism. However, any terrorist worthy of the title could avoid discovery by merely leaving the US before his lawful period of entry - six months for most visitors - has expired. Alternatively, he could have someone fill out his personal information on an exit card.

Either way, the instance of fraud would make the system sieve-like at best. Information would be provided only on those who have overstayed their visas, with no assistance in identifying terrorists, drug traffickers, or other undesirables, but causing problems for the rest of us.

Before imposing a behemoth entry-exit system, we should be sure the current system is working without incident (it's not). This law wouldn't fix the current mess but would add new requirements on top. Also, the costs and feasibility of implementing it should have been assessed before being mandated.

Time is running out. Soon Congress will have to either scrap this law or appropriate the money to implement it by 2001. The Senate, led by Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan, has taken steps toward its repeal. It remains to be seen if the House will follow suit. The Senate Judiciary Committee has concluded that this destructive and misguided bit of law "has absolutely nothing to do with countering drug trafficking [or] ... halting the entry of terrorists," lending further credence to the adage that it is best not to know how either sausages or legislation is made.

*Bronwyn Lance is a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public-policy research institute in Arlington, Va.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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