The Economic and Political Faces of the Border
The Economic and Political Faces of the Border
Initially, when the border agencies were put on high alert after the attacks of September 11, there were few complaints. People—especially Americans—understood that the delays and searches at the nation's borders were necessary to prevent another act of terrorism. The inconvenience of long lines seemed a small price to pay for keeping terrorists out of the country.
Not a Small Price at All
But the delays were exacting a large price on many businesses in the United States who depend on quick, smooth border crossings each day to keep production going. American corporations depend on electrical and automotive components from all over the world. As one observer notes, "These days … a personal computer is a veritable global smorgasbord of chips, disks, and other gear, so the international supply pipeline provides the industry's lifeblood."18
Although American companies buy parts from companies worldwide, by far the greatest amount of their trade is with their closest neighbors, Mexico and Canada. Corporations like Samsonite, Levi Strauss, Sears, Memorex, and Caterpillar have operated small factories, called maquiladoras, in border areas of Mexico for decades, taking advantage of a ready supply of unskilled workers who work far more cheaply than
American workers. The products turned out by the maquiladoras are crucial to those companies, and thousands of delivery trucks each day cross into the United States. All together, there is $250 billion a year in cross-border trade between Mexico and the United States.
Canadian businesses, too, are critical to American corporations. General Motors (GM) alone depends on six hundred truckloads of Canadian automotive parts each day to build its cars and trucks in Detroit. In recent years, many American factories have opted for what is known as "just-in-time" manufacturing, organizing shipments of parts to be delivered within hours of when they are needed. This has eliminated the need for costly warehouses to store components.
The just-in-time method works well, say many corporate executives, unless there are unexpected delays in delivery. "If you have hundreds of trucks waiting in line," says one GM spokesperson, "and you lose a minute on each truck, that adds up."19
Level One Alert
On September 11, companies in the United States, Mexico, and Canada saw what could happen when far more than a minute or two on each truck slowed border crossings. Border agents were put on a Level One alert, which meant that all persons and vehicles coming into the country could be searched and evaluated before being allowed to cross the border. While most of the crossings in Mexico and Canada remained open, bridge crossings, such as the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontaria, closed completely.
More than 25 percent of all U.S. trade with Canada comes over the Ambassador Bridge, with six thousand trucks crossing into the United States each day. When it was closed, there was a line of trucks and cars extending more than twenty-five miles, waiting to cross into Michigan. Although the bridge was reopened shortly, the wait was about sixteen hours to get to the inspection booth, and once there, trucks and cars that before had been given only a cursory check were scrutinized thoroughly. Some drivers reported that their trucks were offloaded and searched—and that the process took between one and two hours.
The delays had a ripple effect on both sides of the border. U.S. plants awaiting late shipments were forced to shut down for days or weeks. Those closures affected some Canadian factories, which were forced to slow or stop production, or in some cases, lay off workers. Few disagreed that the attacks of September 11 had seriously endangered the $475 billion-per-year trading relationship between the two nations.
"The Economy Would Be Ruined"
Responding to the American public's nervousness about the possibility of further attacks, the Bush administration warned border agents to continue their precautions. However, business owners began to complain. Instead of being too lenient, the border agents were now accused of taking too much time in allowing people and vehicles to cross.
Many of the loudest critics were U.S. businesses in the Southwest, which depended heavily on Mexican workers. At the border crossing at San Ysidro, California, for example, fifty thousand Mexicans cross legally each day because they work in and around San Diego. Delays in processing the long lines of vehicles meant waiting an extra six to eight hours, and many of those workers were not able to get to their jobs on time.
Industries such as tourism, manufacturing, meat-packing, and the restaurant industry employ many Mexican workers, business owners said, and without them hundreds of businesses would crumble. Such businesses lobbied their representatives in Congress, and soon border agents were hearing a different message. One inspector understood that he and his fellow agents had to shorten their evaluations, that they "[could not] spend minutes inspecting vehicles, because the economy would be ruined."20
It was clear that there must be a balanced approach to the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. It is critical to have a system to secure national borders from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. However, the system cannot be so slow that it damages the economy—either that of the United States or its neighbors.
Effects Across the Borders
Canadians and Mexicans did feel the economic effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11. After all, almost 90 percent of Mexican exports are destined for the United States. As a result, a number of Mexican businesses were devastated by the border slowdowns. The Mexican trucking industry, for example, lost more than $95 million in the months after the attacks, due, in part, to an economic slowdown that decreased demand for imports from Mexico.
Another important reason for financial loss was that, despite the slowdown, a larger number of trucks was needed simply to fill orders. The long waits at borders meant trucks that formerly could make several trips each day could only make one. To avoid being late in getting shipments to so many of their customers, the companies were forced to buy more trucks that could make local deliveries while their others were stuck in border lines. The cost of the extra vehicles was staggering to the trucking association.
In Canada, other businesses besides factories were affected by the slow border crossings. The Casino Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, which boasts a twenty-three–story hotel as well as a variety of gambling venues, had enjoyed great success since it opened in 1993. More than 80 percent of its customers were Americans, who casino officials say seemed to enjoy gambling in a foreign country for a few hours. Thirteen thousand people each day crossed over the Ambassador Bridge to visit the Casino Windsor.
The manager recalls how, after the attacks on September 11, there was a dramatic change in the casino. "It hit us that afternoon," he says. "As [the huge crowd of Americans] left to go home, there was no one coming in."21 Casino owners assumed the slowdown would last only a week or so, but learned that the slow border crossings would deter many of their American customers from returning. Within a month, Casino Windsor's business was down an alarming 70 percent, and the establishment was forced to lay off six hundred of its forty-eight hundred employees.
A few casinos opened on the U.S. side of the bridge, taking over much of the Windsor's clientele. Americans acknowledged that the Detroit casinos were not as elegant or nearly as large, but they were glad not to have to spend hours waiting in lines. Ironically, by November the waits had shrunk significantly—down to twenty minutes—but rumors of twoto three-hour waits persisted, preventing the casino from rebounding.
President Bush and his administration were aware after September 11 that to be successful in keeping tight, secure borders, the United States would have to have help from its neighbors. Because of the economic woes Mexico and Canada felt after the attacks, it seemed obvious that those nations would be happy to cooperate. However, U.S. officials soon learned that there were political issues that initially got in the way of such cooperation.
The sudden need for tighter borders by its northern neighbor was discouraging to Mexico. Prior to September 11, Mexican president Vicente Fox and George W. Bush had both proclaimed the beginning of a new era of trust and cooperation between their countries. President Bush made a visit to Mexico City his first international trip after his inauguration. And on September 6, 2001, President Fox visited the United States and addressed Congress.
Fox had hoped for more lenient borders with the United States. Unemployment and a worsening economy were prompting an increase in the number of Mexicans who wanted to work in the United States, and the Mexican president hoped that they would be allowed to enter legally. There seemed a strong possibility that the leaders could work something out—until disaster struck five days later.
Understandably, there was a rapid switch in priorities on September 11. No longer focused on immigration reform, President Bush called for even tighter control of the borders. Many Mexicans were affected by the slower border crossings and, instead of sympathizing with the United States, blamed America for what they viewed as punishing Mexico for the terrorist attacks. They were strongly opposed to getting involved in what they perceived was America's war on terrorism. In a poll taken several weeks after the attacks, 62 percent of Mexicans wanted their president to keep their country neutral. It seemed that the good start the two presidents had made before September 11 had all but disappeared.
Tony Garza, the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico, explained how much the United States needed Mexican cooperation at that time. In a speech to an assembly of Mexican college students he said, "There's an old Spanish proverb: 'In good times, all your friends know who you are. In bad times, you know who your friends are.' We often talk about the special relationship between our countries. The real test of that is stepping forward for each other in difficult times."22
But the prevailing view in Mexico was less than supportive at first, and leaders in Washington were impatient. Some members of Congress proposed retaliating economically by deporting tens of thousands of undocumented migrant workers in the United States, or by closing off the border indefinitely—an act that could severely damage Mexico's economy.
"It's a New Mission"
In March 2003, President Fox agreed to offer help to the United States. Even though some Mexican voters have remained unsupportive of the United States, Fox understood that they would be even less supportive if the border were closed because of the lack of cooperation.
One important bit of assistance was the addition of eighteen thousand Mexican soldiers to the U.S. side of the border. At present, some help at airports, seaports, and bridges that link Mexico and the United States, and half of the troops act as sentries in the desert that makes up much of the shared border. One sentry in Juárez noted the irony of the situation. "It's a new mission: Mexico looking out for the United States."23
Another cooperative effort involves the sharing of information between American and Mexican intelligence agencies. One official of Cisen, the Mexican version of the CIA,
says that their mission is fairly straightforward: to make sure that smugglers—whether dealing in drugs or weapons—are apprehended before they can cross the border from Mexico into the United States. "Mexico is not going to be used as a transit point," he vows, "for any terrorist or anyone who wishes to harm the United States."24
Politics in the North
Mexico was not the only neighbor who had reservations about offering support to the United States. While Canada's government was one of the first to express its sympathy after the attacks, some Canadians became upset over the economic effect the slow borders had on their economy. There was another issue, too. For years Canadians have been concerned that their importance is dwarfed by their neighbor to the south—that they are, as one Canadian official quips, "just a garage built onto the back of the American mansion."25
However, John Manley, the foreign affairs minister of Canada, was eager to work with the United States on beefing up border security on both sides. "We feel that we were equally under attack," he noted, insisting that his nation's concerns about being overshadowed by the United States needed to take a backseat to security. "There are no borders when terrorism strikes. If we weren't committed to our best friend and ally, just what would we be committed to?"26
Manley agreed with U.S. officials that a dramatic overhaul of the border was necessary. The Canadian government appropriated $443 million toward that end—much of it to add computers and border guards. In addition, Canadian intelligence combined with the FBI and CIA to create what is called a North American "zone of confidence." That meant the two nations would share databases about immigration, airline passenger lists, and other intelligence matters.
When asked about Canadians' nervousness about losing sovereignty, Manley explained that it was important for them to be realistic. He said he had assured President Bush that he wanted the Canadian people to understand that they benefit best when they have a good relationship with the United States. And after September 11, the best way to cement that relationship would be by sharing the responsibility of their common borders.
"We've got one customer who buys 87 percent of our products," he said, "and if they think there's a problem with security, there's a problem with security. That's not a concession of sovereignty; that's just knowing the customer has a concern, and therefore it's our concern."27
Preventing the Unimaginable
Improving economic and political associations with Canada and Mexico, however, requires effective, secure borders. Even with the cooperation of its neighbors, the United States knows that the ultimate responsibility for maintaining its borders lies with the men and women of the Customs and Border Protection agency. They acknowledge that the pressure is intense. If they are to keep the borders moving swiftly enough for business, they have to make smart decisions in a very short time.
"Inspectors typically have 25 to 30 seconds to make a judgment about whether a driver is telling the truth," explains one inspector on the Canadian border. "A lot of what we do is just common sense. It's looking for things that are out of place, a story that doesn't make sense, or if [a driver] is evasive or won't look you right in the eye."28
It is not only the people they must observe, but also the cargo being transported. Thousands of trucks pass through each inspection station each day, with a wide range of cargo—everything from automotive components and semiconductors to lumber, livestock, and steel. The hiding places for a weapon that can be used for an act of terrorism are endless.
That is why, inspectors say, they cannot let their minds wander at all; everyone at the border must remember that even one lapse can mean that a concealed weapon slips across
the border. One agent who works on the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor to Detroit says that his coworkers are confident in their abilities. "We don't even talk about what happens if something gets through," he says. "Every day, we say we're going out there and stop[ping] everything."29
Help from Technology
One method that has helped the inspectors at the Ambassador Bridge near Detroit be both thorough and quick is a new paperless reporting system called the National Customs Automation Program, or NCAP. Using NCAP, information about what a truck's cargo is, as well as data on its driver, is transmitted from Canada to the United States in advance of the truck's arrival at the border. When a driver gets to the inspection booth, a bar-coded document is handed over to be scanned. As long as everything matches the computer information, the driver is allowed to proceed.
Trucks that use NCAP are the big haulers for the Detroit automakers or other large U.S. corporations. Since about four thousand of the six thousand trucks that cross the bridge each day from Canada are big haulers, this saves a tremendous amount of time for the inspectors at the bridge. Before this system was used, a truck might take more than an hour to clear customs—especially if its paperwork was incomplete. Now a truck can be processed in a matter of a few seconds.
Experts say that the system may be even faster in the future. At least one automaker in Detroit is experimenting with truck-mounted transmitters, which would beam the barcodes and other data to the inspectors at the border when the truck is still on the bridge. If that system works, trucks may get the go-ahead to drive in a special lane that bypasses the border checkpoint entirely.
Looking for Dirty Bombs
There are other ways border agents can keep cargo searches brief—especially when looking for what is known as a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive device, made from dynamite, for example, but packed with radioactive material. The bomb would not only cause death and injury from the actual explosion, but would cause illness from the contamination of airborne radiation. Border agents are well aware of the dangers of such devices; in fact, most agree that a dirty bomb is their biggest concern.
To help them detect the presence of any radioactive materials in cargo, inspectors at both the Mexican and Canadian borders wear radiation detectors. At the Blue Water Bridge
between Port Huron Michigan and Sarina, Ontario, inspectors even check 150 garbage trucks each day. The trucks bring garbage from Ontario to landfills near Detroit, and some experts have noted that terrorists might try to smuggle a dirty bomb that way—perhaps believing the agents would not spend time on trucks carrying waste.
While the detecting devices are a key part of the agents' equipment, they have been found to be too sensitive by many inspectors. Agents complain that they go off whenever radioactive material is present—even in a small degree. That means cancer patients who have undergone radiation will trigger the alarm, as will those who have had radiation treatment for a thyroid condition and people who have been injected with radioactive fluid for certain heart scans. When that happens, agents must wave the traveler aside and give the vehicle a careful search—which can take hours.
Border agents are apologetic, and they realize the detectors have caused many travelers to become angry. One fifty-two-year-old engineer with a thyroid condition was stopped eight times within a four-month period. He says he is tired of being looked at with suspicion. "I'd be glad to get a notarized letter from my doctor or something. Anything to avoid being treated like I'm smuggling a dirty bomb in my shirt or something."30
Optimism Amid Challenges
Border agents feel that they have made great strides since September 11. For example, when the war on terrorism expanded to Iraq early in 2003, many worried that the border situation might resemble the chaos of September 11—but they were pleasantly surprised. Although on the first day of the war, lines were longer than normal at both borders, the waits were nothing like they had been in 2001.
One Toronto auto parts manufacturer attributes the improvement to the border staff. "We now have a much better trained staff," he says. "They can process people and goods much better than they could before."31 The agents themselves agree. They say that they take their jobs very seriously and feel confident that they are doing the best they can, and every day brings the promise of improved methods and new technology that will make them even better and quicker.
But while there has been progress, some feel that the nation is not moving fast enough in securing its borders. Not every vehicle is searched, and there is concern that even with the billions of dollars allocated for border security, Americans are fooling themselves if they think the borders are impenetrable. Representative Jim Ramstad of Minnesota believes that there is much left to be done. "Our nation's border security is our homeland's Achilles' heel," he says. "I think border insecurity is a more honest and accurate term. Our borders are porous."32
Border officials acknowledge that there are still improvements to be made, and they are convinced that they are up to the task. "This is an historic opportunity for all of us," says one senior official of the CBP, "and despite tremendous resistance within government to change, we've got new priorities and new concerns. There are ways to reorganize to bring efficiency and effectiveness to our country's border security, and I'm confident we're going to do it."33