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A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer looks toward a car coming toward at the border crossing between the U.S. and Canada, in Blaine, Wash. (Elaine Thompson)
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer looks toward a car coming toward at the border crossing between the U.S. and Canada, in Blaine, Wash. (Elaine Thompson)

United States

What makes border guards so mean? Add to ...

There's a story from border-guard lore about the day Ahmed Ressam drove from Canada into the U.S. to detonate a bomb in Los Angeles.

Mr. Ressam - the only convicted terrorist caught trying to enter the U.S. from Canada - drove a rental car onto the ferry from Victoria to Washington State in December of 1999. U.S. border inspectors searching his car found some white powder in the trunk, and began testing it as though it were a drug. But after watching Mr. Ressam's panicked reaction to the way they were handling what turned out to be a massive explosive, they figured maybe they had something else on their hands.

In the decade since, the story of Mr. Ressam's capture has come to encapsulate everything that the task of U.S. border protection has become - a mandate that has shifted from counter-narcotics to counterterrorism, and whose biggest success stories are as likely to be the result of heightened vigilance on the part of border officers as blind luck.

That greater emphasis on security has changed the border-crossing experience. In turn, the U.S. border officer has become the stern symbol of post-9/11 America.

The perception among many Canadians is that today's U.S. border officers are meaner. The reality is that they are likely to be younger, under more pressure and - should you give them a reason - yes, meaner.

There used to be a time when crossing the border, even amid the gridlock of a holiday weekend like this one, was a quick formality. In the age of counterterrorism, however, that's no longer the case - even though there are more border officials than ever.

There's a tendency to believe that every U.S. government agency, department and office underwent a drastic metamorphosis as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the case of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it's true. The number of border agents and customs officers has more than doubled, and continues to grow. In 2000, there were 9,000 agents; today, there are more than 19,000. Before 2001, there were about 350 agents assigned to the Canadian border; today, that number is closer to 1,500.

Earlier this year, the agency went on a 15-city hiring spree, looking to fill more than 11,000 positions, including about 3,000 customs officers, who work at the 300 or so legal ports of entry into the U.S., and 4,600 agents, who monitor everywhere else for illegal entrants.

The border patrol's recruitment budget last year alone stood at almost $40-million, money it used on everything from sporting-event sponsorships to job fairs at overseas military bases (the agency seeks out former military personnel, in part because they are already trained).

As a result of the massive recruitment drive, younger employees are making up a larger portion of the agency's front-line force.

But the agency's size and demographics are not the only things that have changed: Its mandate also has morphed. Whereas border officers and agents used to focus much of their energy on combatting the drug trade, today the priority is unquestionably anti-terrorism, a mandate that became formal in 2003, when Customs and Border Protection became an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

"Our mission has changed," says Mucia Dovalina, public-affairs liaison officer at Customs and Border Protection's office of field operations. "It's about anti-terrorism and homeland protection. Our role has changed and is more geared towards the security of our country."

Because of that greater emphasis on security, more and more people on both sides of the border, who used to pass with ease, are encountering new obstacles.

Take information-sharing. Since Sept. 11, Canadian and American authorities have become much more thorough in sharing criminal records. The result is the digitization of files that otherwise would be collecting dust in a local police office's archives, and the subsequent banning of people who had been crossing the border hassle-free for years prior. (On average, U.S. border officials refuse entry to 614 people a day.)

"They're doing a much better job of sharing information," says Peter Rekai, a Toronto-based lawyer and specialist in immigration law. "But what's coming up now are 20- or 25-year-old impaired driving charges, or the CEO who, when he was 20, took a stop sign off the road and put it in his basement."

That problem isn't confined to just one side of the border, Mr. Rekai adds. Americans are often surprised to find they are now being flagged by Canadian officials for old drunk-driving offences, which are state-level infractions in the U.S. but federal crimes in Canada; Canadians can set off alarms because of previous marijuana-related offences, even if the charges were eventually dropped.

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