United States and Canada need to find balance between security and tourism
Janet Napolitano and myself were both in Canada at the same time. I’m willing to bet she had a much easier time at customs than I did.
If you have crossed the U.S.-Canadian border in the last few years, you know the border crossing is a much more intense experience. And we all know the moment things changed was 9/11. There were erroneous reports that Al-Qaeda operatives had come into the United States via Canada, all of which were absolutely untrue.
We were told at the time, and since, that this is for the security of the country, and we should just roll with it. But many are choosing not to roll with it, and just staying home.
Now, Napolitano had a much easier time crossing the border and back than an average person such as me for a number of reasons. Her picture is up on the wall of customs offices, being the Secretary of Homeland Security. She is their boss. And she had a verifiable reason to go: a conference of defense and security people in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In other words, a business trip.
My reasons were not as exciting: I attended the Windsor International Film Festival, seeing 7 films in 3 days. I had my suitcase and bags opened and searched completely.
I have been to the festival before and have not received this type of response. The officer seemed concerned that I had made my third trip to Canada in a year. He asked if I had trouble getting into Canada before; I answered no.
Was the office referring to the secondary inspection in Toronto in September? Is this why I had my suitcase searched in Detroit? I asked in Toronto if I was in trouble; they told me I wasn’t — people get selected at random. I didn’t think I was in trouble and after a few simple questions, I was on my way.
There is even a sign in the U.S. customs office in Detroit that says when in doubt, go to secondary. I doubt seriously that Napolitano went to secondary.
That being said, the customs officials aren’t bad people. Actually, the guy who went through my luggage was a nice guy; I would have a beer with him. But they are stuck in a bad situation.
But part of why I was considered suspicious was that I was a tourist. Normally, in these situations, the customs officers ask you questions to prove your story is valid. What movies did you see? Can you describe them? Do you have the tickets as proof?
None of those questions were offered up this time around. But this isn’t about one anecdotal moment. There are plenty of anecdotal moments experienced by Americans and Canadians to fill thousands of notebooks in the last 10 years.
Maybe business people get this same kind of treatment, but there is a feeling that their needs are taken more seriously at customs.
When concerns over tourism became a problem after 9/11, we were assured that security was more important. Given the state of the Canadian economy and the U.S. economy, working to reduce travel is a financial detriment. And it’s a detriment to the goodwill between the longest peace border between two countries in the world.
Tourism isn’t all that is suffering. Commerce — especially at the Detroit-Windsor border — has suffered due to increased times at customs.
People of a certain age remember a time when a driver’s license was all that was needed, and a few tough questions were all that were coming. As much fun as it would be to go back to those times, we know that won’t happen.
Those who met in Halifax probably didn’t hear much about tourism. They probably didn’t even walk around downtown, along the boardwalk, visit Pier 21, see the new farmers market building, or go on a whale-watching tour. I know about those sites in Halifax because I went there as a tourist.
They should have had a debate, asking where tourism fits into the security question. Even in the first few years after 9/11, there was an understanding between customs and tourist. One area in that exchange that has changed is the new passport. With the chip in that passport, more information is stored, increasing the concern among customs officials.
If you have a relatively new passport, they know more about you. And this is likely a reason why things are worse for tourists at the border.
But tourism is suffering and this needs to be important to the governments of both countries. As bad as the cliche has become, if these countries kill tourism in the name of security, the terrorists win.
These two countries represent freedom around the world. The problem is right now between the two countries, freedom is the last word you hear.
There are solutions that involve security while protecting tourism. Customs and the governments need to figure out what that is — the sooner, the better.