Canadian Input for New U.S. Border Plan

Posted by admin on Sep 4th, 2008

Democrats and Republicans are working together to draw up a new Canada-U.S. border management plan for the incoming American administration, and have asked Canadian politicians for their input after years of poor management following 9/11. Work on a new border plan has begun at the request of the speaker of the U.S. Congress, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

The Canadian point men on the project are the co-chairs of the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group: Conservative MP Rob Merrifield and Liberal Senator Jerry Grafstein.

The pair have spent much of the summer south of the border, attending the various legislative councils held each summer across the United States, in addition to the Democratic and Republican national conventions. At those meetings they have continually pressed Canada’s role in a prosperous American economy, including the importance of a hassle-free border that facilitates trade, rather than hindering it.

Messrs. Merrifield and Grafstein said the decision to have Canadian and American officials devise a new border plan took off after they met with Ms. Pelosi in Washington, D.C., in April.

Mr. Grafstein said Ms. Pelosi “understood the Canadian issues” and got behind the idea of a new bipartisan plan for the border, developed in co-operation with Canadian politicians. The plan will be presented to Ms. Pelosi, who is expected to pass it onto the new administration regardless of its political stripe.

Ms. Pelosi has delegated the leadership of the project to Democratic New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who has been working closely with Messrs. Merrifield and Grafstein. At last week’s Democratic National Convention, Ms. Slaughter arranged a series of meetings with top Democrats on the issue for the visiting Canadians.

“[Ms. Slaughter] and I have been charged by Nancy Pelosi to put together a group to deal with border issues, and I do think there is an opportunity to have a re-examination of how the border has thickened and to [find] an appropriate position moving forward,” Mr. Merrifield said from Denver last week. “On the Republican and Democratic sides both, there are some serious concerns.”

Mr. Grafstein said this is a rare and valuable opportunity to get Canadian perspectives into the new plan at the ground floor.

“This is the first time we’ve actually had an opportunity to bilaterally deal with border issues, rather than one country doing something unilaterally,” he said. “That’s very positive.”

Messrs. Merrifield and Grafstein predicted that the plan will make an impression regardless of who wins the American presidency.

“I believe there is an opportunity with the new administration, whether it’s McCain or Obama, and we’re working very hard to make sure that happens,” said Mr. Merrifield. “I believe cool heads will prevail with trade. Americans are free traders by nature.”

The border plan will be discussed further later this month is Washington, D.C., when Canadian and American legislators will convene for the annual meeting of the Canada-U.S. Border Alliance.

Mr. Grafstein said he is also pushing for a visit by Ms. Slaughter and other American legislators to Ottawa in late October or early November to discuss the plan. Among the invitees to this northern get-together is former Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

“I think [the border plan] will be a tremendous influence,” said Mr. Grafstein. “When the speaker of the House asks for a plan to be implemented by the new administration, you should take that very seriously. And we do.”
Change in the Air at DHS

Many Canada-U.S. watchers agree that the end of the Bush administration heralds in a new opportunity to reshape the organization blamed for many of the policies that have mucked up the border since 9/11: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

George W. Bush created the DHS in November 2002, combining 22 government agencies into a single organization. The organization now has over 200,000 employees, an annual operating budget of more than $44 billion, and works on trade, immigration, counterterrorism and many other files.

More than six years after its creation, though, many doubt its effectiveness and efficiency and see the departure of Mr. Bush as a chance to shake things up.

“[The Department of] Homeland Security has been the cause of a lot of our problems,” said Mr. Grafstein. “And the good news is that both the Democrats and Republicans are unhappy with Homeland Security.”

Mr. Grafstein added that two top-ranking members of Congress on the homeland security file—California Democrat Loretta Sanchez and Ohio Republican George Voinovich—both agree changes are necessary.

“We’re trying to develop a bipartisan approach to reforming Homeland Security in such a way that it minimizes the impact on the border with Canada,” he said.

A Canadian diplomat who recently left a high-ranking post at the Canadian Embassy in Washington also smells change in the air.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if there was some significant change to the DHS because there’s a sense, particularly in Congress, that it just isn’t working and that big is not necessarily more efficient,” he said.

“The Democrats may well dismantle DHS and put something else in place.”

The diplomat added that the change in administration will see the departure of current Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

“For one, you get rid of that awful current secretary of homeland security who is a real block for us,” the diplomat said. “I’m afraid with Mr. Chertoff, he’s just been intransigent. We’ve not been able to make any progress.”

Mr. Grafstein said he also welcomed the coming change of the homeland security secretary.

“A key factor for us is who is going to be the next security advisor,” he said. “It’s very important the advisor is someone who is knowledgeable about Canada.”

He mentioned he had heard two names are short-listed on the Democratic side, but would not say whom. He did say, however: “One in particular would be good for us. The other doesn’t know a lot about Canada.”
Canadian Suggestions So Far

At the request of his American allies, Mr. Grafstein has drawn up a series of preliminary recommendations about what can be done to achieve a better-managed border.

A letter, containing eight points, was prepared at the request of Republican Senator and former governor of Ohio George Voinovich on July 31 and later passed to Ms. Slaughter.

Mr. Grafstein’s recommendations touch on points that would ease the flow of both people and goods across the border, and apply to air travel, trucking regulations and infrastructure.

To address trucking snags, he recommends lower inspection rates for members of trusted-shipper programs, such as the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) system, and that an agreement be put in place so “that rail and truck cargo inspected, cleared and secured at a Canadian port should not be subject to further inspections at the U.S. border.”

On the air travel side, the senator recommends that the United States accept Canadian baggage screening as equivalent to U.S. standards so Canadian baggage being transferred in the U.S. does not have to be re-screened.

In addition, Mr. Grafstein requests U.S. authorities address the problem of understaffing at border crossings, with the assertion that major border crossings are lacking as much as 40 per cent of their required American staff.

He also asks for “continued U.S. priority attention” to the Detroit River International Crossing, where the Ambassador Bridge now connects Detroit, Michigan with Windsor, Ontario. This bridge currently carries some 25 per cent of total Canadian-American trade. To cope with congestion, Mr. Grafstein encourages his American counterparts to proceed with the construction of a second bridge or tunnel.

Finally, Mr. Grafstein asks for continued co-operation in the run up to the June 1, 2009 full implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which will require Canadian and U.S. citizens to use passports when crossing land and sea borders. The American public, he writes, must be made aware of the need for passports so as to stop any further drop in tourist traffic, which “which has substantially reduced in the last five years because of delays and additional documentation.


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