Border Issues Thrust to Fore: Security vs. Trade

 

In an effort to reduce the threat of terrorists slipping into the country, Immigration and Customs officials have tightened the nation's northern and southern borders, prompting local and state officials to call for increased border staffing to ease the flow of goods and people. At stake is the economic health of states, regions and industries dependent on open borders for survival.

"Long lines are seriously disrupting commerce in the border states and citizens. . .are being subjected to long waits at manned checkpoints, and unmanned crossings normally open to commercial traffic. . .are closed altogether, again causing significant economic hardship on the affected companies," Maine Gov. Angus King said in a letter to President Bush.

In the letter, King urged the president to deploy National Guard troops to the borders to expedite traffic. Arizona Gov. Jane Hull made a similar request to a top Customs official, according to Francie Noyes, Hull's press secretary.

Already, INS and Customs officials have been working longer hours to implement a higher level of border security without disrupting commerce. But an INS spokesman admits this is a tall order.

"We've seen concerns raised by both government and business at border states and are sensitive to them," said Russ Bergeron, INS spokesman. "At the same time we need to balance those concerns against the pervasive concerns that became terribly clear on Sept. 11 with respect to national security and protection of the American public."

"Hopefully, in the future, with additional resources, we can return to shorter lines at our inspection points while not sacrificing the security levels that are clearly needed given this terrorist threat," he said.

The major piece of anti-terrorism legislation before Congress would go a long way toward providing those resources by tripling the number of federal agents along the nation's northern border and funding $100 million in technological improvements.

But even if approved, it would be months before these resources could reach the borders. In the meantime, federal officials are scrambling for enough money to pay all the overtime worked by border officers.

Evidence of economic disruption due to border delays is anecdotal, but abundant.

The wait along Maine's 611-mile border with Canada surged to nearly two hours in the days after the attacks. It has since returned to more normal levels, although sporadic and long waits still occur.

Carl Royer is a customs broker and co-owner of a small retail shop in Calais, Maine, a border town. He says major manufacturing goods have been rolling through the town at a good clip, but that the tourists, shoppers and assorted day-trippers have not been making the trip across.

"What's hurting us now, as a border community, is that our Canadian business is off," said Royer. "Before you could just cross the border and run into town and say goodbye. Now it's 'pop the trunk, come over here, let's take a look at that.' It's intimidating."

In an effort to reduce the threat of terrorists slipping into the country, Immigration and Customs officials have tightened the nation's northern and southern borders, prompting local and state officials to call for increased border staffing to ease the flow of goods and people. At stake is the economic health of states, regions and industries dependent on open borders for survival.

Royer said business at his retail shop is off about 50 percent, the worst he's ever seen.

"We're giving a $15 billion bailout to the airlines, but I don't see them bailing our family business out," he said.

Canada is by far Maine's largest trading partner, with the two parties exchanging over $2.3 billion in goods and services last year, according to the Maine International Trade Center.

Slow border crossings may be affecting Michigan more than any other state.

More than 40 percent of the over the $1 billion worth of goods traded every day by Canada and the United States pass through Michigan, and congestion at the state's major gateways has been heavy. The Ambassador Bridge in Detroit is the busiest border crossing in North America, and lines on the Canadian side stretched for 12 miles in the days after the attacks.

Michigan Gov. John Engler said in a conference call with reporters that border delays may hurt industries dependent on "just in time" manufacturing, such as the automotive industry.

Border delays of even 20 minutes can result in assembly line shutdowns and cancelled work shifts, according to the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. The chamber reports that since Sept. 11 delays have cost businesses millions of dollars, affecting suppliers, factories, dealerships, parts manufacturers, consumers and investors.

Even healthcare is being affected. Approximately 1,600 of Detroit's nurses live in Canada, and many hospitals report that delays and unpredictability at the border have prompted several of their Canadian employees to resign in frustration.

Gov. Engler's press secretary said the governor will continue to work with Michigan's congressional delegation to find a fix for the state's border ills, but admits there is not much the governor can do alone.

"It's an international border so there's not a huge role for the state," said Susan Shafer, the governor's press secretary. "It really requires federal action."

The southern border of the United States has long been more tightly patrolled than the northern one. Nevertheless, it too is suffering border backlogs as a result of heightened security.

"We have a number of small communities along the border that are very dependent from people coming up from Mexico on a daily basis to shop. Now, with three hour lines the shoppers are not coming and businesses are really hurting," said Francie Noyes, press secretary for Gov. Jane Hull.

Over the next month or so, the United States will enter a season in which it imports a significant amount of its produce from Mexico. Continued border delays could have a devastating impact on this industry and would be felt in grocery stores across the country.

"The governor has suggested that one thing that might help is to use some personnel from the National Guard, not to militarize the border, but to help speed up the lines through the border," said Noyes.

"There is some urgency to this because of the economic impact to small businesses and knowing that we're heading into the produce shipping season."

 
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