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Trump’s border plan for Canada? So far, not a wall

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by U.S. President Donald Trump. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

President Donald Trump has said little about the world’s longest undefended border – the one between the U.S. and Canada.

Trump barely addressed the issue at his first meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 13 in Washington. Although Trudeau’s vision of openness and diversity may conflict with Trump’s vision of “America First,” the leaders parted ways with an amicable handshake.

The two leaders have different views on their borders. While Trudeau announced that Canada is open to the world’s refugees, Trump has focused the world’s attention on the U.S.-Mexico border by drawing up plans for a US$21.6 billion border wall.

During their joint press conference, Trump offered an optimistic assessment of the overall state of the Canada-U.S. relationship. He said, “America is deeply fortunate to have a neighbor like Canada. We have before us the opportunity to build even more bridges — bridges of co-operation and bridges of commerce.” This kind of statement signals hope for a continuation of the status quo, rather than a more secured border.

At 5,525 miles, the Canada-U.S. border is more than twice the length of the border with Mexico. And yet only 2,059 U.S. border agents patrol it, compared to the 17,026 along the U.S.-Mexico border. From Ottawa’s point of view, the goal of bilateral talks with the U.S. is to separate any discussion of the northern border from the southern border. A related objective is to ensure that, for any future border policy updates, security concerns do not trump trade.

Our research on the Canada-U.S. border and the two countries’ long-standing alliance demonstrates the inherent tension between Canada’s reliance on open borders for trade and on the U.S. as a security partner. These factors force Canada to be responsive to changes in U.S. security policy.

Post-9/11: Balancing trade and security

Canada’s willingness to respond to evolving U.S. security priorities is best reflected in the changes along the border post-9/11. New security measures were implemented such as arming the Canadian border guards and the creation of integrated border enforcement teams.

A man is taken into custody by Canadian police after walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Quebec. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

Many refer to the impact of these policies as a “hardening” or “thickening” of the border because it resulted in a reduction in traffic and trade flows. Yet, Canada needs the northern border to remain soft for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to work optimally. Indeed, fast-tracking goods and people across the border is vital for key industries in both countries.

The Canada-U.S. border is one of the world’s most profitable with US$2 billion in bilateral trade each day. Canada is the United States’ second largest trade partner and largest export market.

The meeting between Trump and Trudeau revealed little new information on the future of NAFTA. While a full renegotiation remains on the table, Trump only talked about making “tweaks” to the trade agreement.

Meanwhile, recent reports suggest that the border’s current openness is being exploited by human traffickers and drug smuggling rings. Attempts at fully securing the border are inherently difficult, not only because of its length but also because Indian reservations, or First Nations territories, straddle the border. Restrictions on federal access to these areas means little can be done to enforce customs and immigration law.

Years of illicit flows of goods and people are now combined with a skyrocketing number of illegal entries into Canada from the U.S. since the November 2016 election. In November 2016 alone, 273 people entered the province of Quebec illegally and requested refugee status, compared to 263 in the same province for all of 2015.

After Trump imposed a travel ban, asylum seekers in the U.S. started making the trek northward, braving harsh winter conditions to reach Canada on foot in order to bypass border crossings. Migrants are crossing the northern border in spite of the fact that, under the Safe Third Country Agreement, they must apply for asylum in the first country they arrive in. They cannot make asylum claims in both Canada and the U.S.

Free trade above all else?

Concerns over homegrown violent extremism and radicalization are growing both in the U.S. and Canada. Canada has a foreign-born population of almost 6.8 million people, of whom 17.2 percent or 1,160,000 are recent immigrants. They may soon face new immigration restrictions and border controls.

A bill introduced by Trudeau’s Liberal government would give U.S. border guards unprecedented powers to question, search and detain travelers in Canadian airports and other pre-clearance areas. Pre-clearance zones, which have been in place for years, require travelers from Canada to pass through U.S. Customs and Immigration before they physically cross the border into the U.S.

Canadians, like Americans, have had mixed feelings about immigration. A month before the U.S. election, 79 percent of Canadians polled said they felt that Canada’s immigration and refugee policies should “give priority to Canada’s own economic and workforce needs” rather than prioritizing “people in crisis abroad.” A January 2017 poll indicated that Canadians remain ambivalent about immigration, with 35 percent of respondents neither in favor of nor opposed to a total ban on immigration into Canada. This suggests that Canadian attitudes are malleable.

While Trudeau steers clear of linking terrorism and immigration, Trump made the connection explicit during their meeting: “We have some wonderful ideas on immigration. We have some, I think, very strong, very tough ideas on the tremendous problem that we have with terrorism.”

For Trudeau, working with Trump will mean striking the right balance between the need to nurture positive ties with the U.S. and standing by principles such as diversity and an openness to the world. The cooperative relationship between the U.S. and Canada is deeply institutionalized on both the economic and security fronts. But, while Canadians largely reject Trump’s rhetoric, the Canadian economy is heavily reliant on free trade with the U.S. This is a bargaining advantage that Trump is unlikely to ignore when he looks to renegotiate with his northern neighbor.

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