Restrictions grow along US-Canada line

A Quebec man faces trial after crossing into Maine without okay from the border patrol.

When Canadian Michel Jalbert pulled into Oullette's Gas Bar - a mere 50 feet inside US territory - one day last month, he was doing what his neighbors always do. Like most residents of Pohénégamook, Quebec, a tiny town on the US-Canadian border, Mr. Jalbert was taking advantage of Maine gas prices that are as much as 20 cents per gallon less than in his hometown.

But unlike the two-dozen other customers at the station that day, Jalbert was arrested and sent to jail for five weeks.

While Jalbert was warned twice not to cross into the US without checking in with the border patrol, his neighbors were surprised that he was singled out. Most fail to report their comings and goings to the US border outpost a half mile up the road.

As homeland security tops the list of Bush administration priorities, the Jalbert case likely portends even more restrictive measures along the world's longest undefended border.

"We know that there are terrorists out there who will try to use that openness [between Canada and the US] to attack either one of our two countries," said Secretary of State Colin Powell when questioned about the case.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought US-Canadian border security to the fore. But concerns had been growing since a report in February 2000 by the US Office of the Inspector General that noted several US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deficiencies. Some of these deficiencies included understaffing and poor screening infrastructure.

Canada and the US signed a "smart border" agreement last December to improve the processing of the 200 million people who cross the border each year. Congress authorized the INS to triple the number of border patrol personnel and inspectors. Before the increase, the INS had 334 border patrol agents and 498 inspectors working on the 4,000-mile Canadian border, compared with 9,500 agents and inspectors assigned to the Mexican border.

President Bush also requested $362 million in his 2003 budget to design and implement biometric identifiers at all border crossings, with the goal of recording the entry and exit of all aliens.

Canada and the US have joined to form five new border policing units in Ontario and Quebec. These Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBET) combine police, immigration, and customs officials from both countries. In addition to fighting terrorism, the IBET teams are expected to impede smuggling of people, as well as drugs, contraband cigarettes, and other illegal substances. A total of 14 teams are planned from coast to coast.

Results from increased vigilance on the northern border are encouraging. In October, INS Commissioner James Ziglar testified before Congress that more than 4,000 criminal aliens - half of all those arrested as US points of entry - were arrested at northern border crossings.

Yet the increased vigilance, as in the Jalbert case, can cause minor rifts in Canada-US relations. Last month, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen switching planes in New York was deported to Syria after officials accused him of possible links to Al Qaeda. Under new rules, anyone born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria can be fingerprinted and photographed at the border. This sparked concerns that the US would use "racial profiling" to deny entry to some of Canada's foreign-born citizens.

Observers say that these rifts stem from the two countries' different reaction to Sept. 11. "Canadians aren't feeling under siege, whereas in the US we are on a war footing," says Chris Sands, a Canada-US relations expert at the US Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Sands says that the Al Qaeda cells uncovered in Buffalo and Detroit, cities along the border, may have heightened border concerns. The use of Canada as a terrorist staging ground remains unproven.

Jalbert is currently out on bail. It took intervention by Mr. Powell - who called the matter an "unfortunate incident" - to secure his release. In January, Jalbert will formally face charges of illegal entry into the US, gas smuggling, and weapons possession for having a hunting rifle. If convicted, the 32-year-old father of two could spend up to 10 years in jail.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.