U.S., Canada in talks over new ‘continental approach’ to security

Stateline Midwest Vol. 20, No. 2: February 2011

Canada and the United States are pursuing a perimeter security agreement that proponents say would allow goods and people to move more freely along the land border between the two countries and reduce costs for businesses.

The idea of a “continental approach” to security has been discussed for years, but the likelihood of a pact being reached seems stronger now than ever before. It would require a greater harmonization of the two countries’ security programs and policies.

“The fact that public officials are starting to talk about a perimeter security agreement in such a public and prominent way is very encouraging,” says Sarah Hubbard, the former senior vice president of government relations at the Detroit Regional Chamber and now a principal with Acuitas, a Michigan-based consulting and government relations firm.

The perimeter security agreement has finally begun to gain traction, she says, because barriers along the U.S.-Canada border have become “too much to bear.”

“They are becoming a true impediment to trade between our two countries,” Hubbard believes.

Concerns include longer border delays, increased transaction costs for businesses and enhanced inspections that have slowed shipments. As a result, some companies have abandoned the just-in-time delivery process that was a mainstay of border trade, particularly in auto assembly. Companies instead have been stockpiling inventory to prevent delays in production, according to The Globe and Mail.

Hubbard says the agreement would be especially helpful to small and medium-sized companies that do cross-border business. Because of their lack of size, these businesses cannot readily access the frequent-shipper programs that simplify and speed up border crossings by pre-clearing cargo or allowing access to dedicated traffic lanes.

Still, reaching a final agreement will require some delicate and tricky negotiations.

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a December 2010 article that any final agreement will likely include:

  • common standards for screening incoming cargo before it leaves a foreign port for either country,
  • more cooperation among law enforcement agencies, and
  • an upgrade in border infrastructure.

One of the most important elements of any agreement, and likely the most controversial element, will be the adoption of an integrated entry-exit system that tracks travelers from third countries.

The United States will probably expect this system to mirror the biometric identification program that it already uses as part of US-VISIT, which collects data to determine if foreign visitors are eligible to enter the United States and helps identify them while they are here and as they leave.

Alden also anticipates that both countries will share more “real time” information about travelers entering either country from overseas, which he says will raise privacy issues in Canada.

While Canadian concerns will center on privacy and sovereignty, there is expected to be opposition on the U.S. side by those who believe the country should only pursue a unilateral approach to homeland security.