WASHINGTON -- Canadians and Americans are "courting disaster" because lax laws and low budgets open their shared border to terrorists, smugglers and other criminals, experts warn.
"Terrorist groups locate in Canada in part because of Canada's liberal visa and asylum laws", Michael Bromwich, inspector-general of the U.S. Justice Department told a Congress committee yesterday.
"To ignore this problem on our border is courting disaster", said Dale Brandland, a Washington state sheriff.
"It will take one incident like we saw in Oklahoma City to create the kind of disaster I'm talking about", he said, referring to the 1995 bombing of a government building by American Timothy McVeigh that killed 168 and injured 850.
Canada took hits from almost everyone at a public hearing on cross-border immigration problems, including a Canadian spy expert.
"The largely untold truth is that Canada and terrorism do go together", Ottawa security analyst David Harris told Congress members. Canadians are so complacent in their "peaceable kingdom" that they ignore the growth of terrorism in their own country, he said.
He gave examples of "homelands-connected" violence, from the Air India bombing that killed 329 people in 1985, to Molotov cocktails hurled at the U.S. consulate in Toronto at an anti-NATO protest last month.
"Terrorism is alive and well and living in Canada and it's the obligation of the Canadian government to emphasize that fact to the Canadian people", said Harris, former strategic planning chief for CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and now a private business consultant who assesses security threats.
Americans told the committee that Canada is a magnet for such men as Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, serving a life sentence for planning to bomb the New York subway in mid-1997. He was caught three times trying to enter the U.S. illegally from Canada - mostly through British Columbia parks into Washington state - and twice returned voluntarily to Canada.
Canadian immigration officials refused to accept him the third time.
The U.S. has so few border agents and is so lax on background checks of illegal immigrants that "it's surprising that Mezer was apprehended once, much less three times", Bromwich said. "No terrorism checks are performed either by INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) or by the department of state on the vast majority of asylum-seekers."
Committee chair Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, denied suggestions from Democrat committee members that he's trying to fuel anti-Canadian sentiment to win support for controversial border controls.
Smith is a strong advocate of Section 110, an immigration law change that would make border checks mandatory for everyone crossing the Canada-U.S. border. The law was postponed by President Bill Clinton until 2001, after Canadian Ambassador Raymond Chrétien and others convinced him it would lead to day-long traffic jams and billions of dollars in lost business.
`Illegal smuggling takes place daily'
There are only 289 U.S. border patrol agents on the Canada-U.S. border, compared to 7,357 along the U.S.-Mexico border, said union president Mark Hall from Detroit.
Yet trafficking in drugs and illegal immigrants has exploded, experts said.
A decade ago, there was "very little alien- or drug-smuggling activity along the (B.C.-Washington) border", said Eugene Davis, deputy chief of the U.S. border patrol in Blaine, Wash.. "Illegal smuggling (now) takes place daily."
U.S. agents charge two-way drug traffic is booming, with homegrown "B.C. Bud" marijuana a big lure along the U.S. West Coast, because it's more powerful than Mexican marijuana. Border seizures increased 600 per cent in 1998.
But Ambassador Chrétien, in a written report to the committee, said immigration violations at the border represent only 0.01 per cent of the tens of millions of citizens who cross each year.