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Canadian border agents at work on the Canadian border at the Peace Arch Crossing in Surrey, B.C. (Simon Hayter For The Globe and Mail)
Canadian border agents at work on the Canadian border at the Peace Arch Crossing in Surrey, B.C. (Simon Hayter For The Globe and Mail)

U.S. senators urge for better protection along Canadian border Add to ...

More border-patrol agents are needed to protect the United States against infiltration by smugglers and other threats from Canada, Dean Mandel, a veteran agent stationed in Buffalo and representative of the National Border Patrol Council, told a Senate Homeland Security hearing on the northern border.

“We only have about 300 agents guarding the entire northern border at any one time,” Mr. Mandel said on Wednesday, adding: “There are approximately as many Capitol Police on duty right now protecting the Capitol complex as we have on the entire 4,000-mile northern border.”

The vast majority of agents, effort, spending and political focus are on the border with Mexico – which has again become a hot election topic with Republican Donald Trump vowing to “stop illegal immigration by building a wall on our southern border that Mexico will pay for” – but Wednesday’s hearing focused on real or imagined deficiencies in the Canada-U.S. border.

Mr. Mandel said the border with Canada is so porous that infiltration is easy. The border patrol is “40-per-cent effective in apprehending illegal aliens and drug smugglers” from Mexico, he said, while on the Canadian border “the effectiveness rate is a fraction of this figure.”

The hearing was called to assess whether the new Canadian government’s decision to accept tens of thousands of Syrian refugees would pose a security threat to the United States. Most senators seemed satisfied with Ottawa’s assurances that careful vetting – including the use of U.S. databases on terrorist-watch lists – rendered acceptable the risk that extremists might infiltrate the influx.

“Refugees coming to Canada are from low-risk groups – families with children, single mothers, LGBT men,” said Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “Sixty per cent are women and 22 per cent are children. This is not an ISIS demographic,” she added, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the extremist movement that has created a nascent caliphate in the Middle East.

Instead, the worries were raised mostly by two Canadian witnesses.

Toronto immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann warned that the rapidly escalated rate of refugee screening ordered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put Canadian intelligence agents and security screeners “under tremendous pressure to deliver an unprecedented volume of work in record time.” He said the surge of 500 extra Canadian officials to Jordan and Lebanon to help with medical and background checks would speed the process, but cautioned: “It is unclear what expertise these people might bring to the table.”

David Harris, director of the Ottawa- based Insignis Strategic Research Inc., who once worked for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, suggested Canada would be hard-pressed to vet the refugees adequately given that FBI director James Comey had said U.S. resources will be taxed to screen 10,000 annually. “How likely is it that Canada, even with valuable U.S. assistance, could adequately screen two-and-a-half times that number in four months?” he asked.

Only a handful of senators – mostly from northern border states – turned up for the hearing, and most seemed satisfied with assurances from the Canadian government that the refugee vetting was comprehensive and would pose no security threat to the United States.

“Rest assured that no corners, including security screening, are being cut,” Gary Doer, who until last week was Canada’s ambassador to Washington, wrote in the government’s official submission to the Senate committee.

In fact, several of the senators voiced appreciation for the closely integrated Canada-U.S. intelligence-sharing about those seeking to enter either country or move between the two.

“We may wear different uniforms, but we are on the same team, and I think with the Canadians, we’re on the same team,” said Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, who chairs the committee.

Other senators seemed, at times, to be competing to proclaim their ties with and admiration of Canada, even as they pointed to the need for more money spent in their states on border protection.

Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, said: “I represent New Hampshire, and we are a state, of course, that borders Canada, and we do a lot of important economic trade with Canada. I trace my own roots back to Canada, with Ayotte as a last name.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp, said her North Dakota accent means she “frequently gets mistaken for a Canadian.” She told the hearing that “we’ve taken our eyes off the northern border,” adding: “We need more people and more resources” to protect it.

Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, lamented that his state has only a water border – in Lake Erie – with Canada, but also urged that more money be spent. He held up a photograph of a telephone in an Ohio marina on which boaters arriving from Canada are expected to telephone U.S. border authorities.

“I very much appreciate our friends to the north,” Senator Jon Tester told one witness. “Coming from Montana with a 550-mile border, I can tell you that I have more connections with the folks to the north in Alberta and Saskatchewan than I do with folks east of the Mississippi, so thank you very much for living in a great country.”

Sen. Tester, referring to Mr. Mandel’s testimony that only 300 U.S. border agents are on duty at any time on the Canadian border, asked: “Can anyone tell me how many agents Canada has on its southern border?”

None of the panelists had an answer.

The Canada Border Service Agency did not immediately respond when asked the same question.

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