Floyd J. McKay / Guest columnist
When it comes to the border, the U.S. has crossed a line
My first trip to a foreign country was a short ride in my uncle's fishing boat, across Lake Metigoshe to Canada — where...
My first trip to a foreign country was a short ride in my uncle's fishing boat, across Lake Metigoshe to Canada — where the flag at the bait-and-beer store was definitely not Old Glory and the proprietor kept saying "eh" at the end of sentences.
I was about 10 years old, and I'd never been out of North Dakota — but I had been in another country! And it was really easy, no passports or security screening despite the legends of bootleggers making that trip during Prohibition.
I'm still a "borderite," but let me tell you, the trip isn't as easy as it was then, and it's not getting easier.
That's something we ought to think about before we impose even more Draconian measures on the 5,500 miles often called the longest peaceful border in the world.
Washington's congressional delegation needs to push a comprehensive examination of border policies, not just because trade with Canada is a big deal in this state, but also because the Bush administration once again is using 9/11 fears to impose new restrictions on travel and more invasions of privacy.
Most of our current attention is directed at the 2009 deadline for adults crossing the border to have passports. Some 30 percent of Americans and 40 percent of Canadians have passports now, and it appears the Department of Homeland Security will approve a deal between Washington and British Columbia to honor an "enhanced" driver's license instead.
But beyond the passport regulation is a larger issue of how we handle border crossings, and how our borders are perceived not only by Canadians but also by all international travelers. In a reputable international survey, 39 percent said the U.S. was the world's worst in terms of being traveler-friendly, including document processing and "having immigration officials who are respectful toward foreign visitors." The Middle East and South Asia were "next worst," at 16 percent. Canada was cited by only 2 percent.
This survey, by Discover America Partnership, an advocacy organization for America's tourism industry, confirms what a lot of borderites already know — we seem to go out of our way to insult, intimidate and discourage visitors. We've gone across the border with Scottish friends, middle-aged professionals who were pulled out of line, rudely questioned and kept waiting for no apparent reason. One friend, after witnessing U.S. border agents harass an East Asian family, said it reminded him of his native South Africa.
At least 39 states have more trade with Canada than any other nation, but concern about policies that are off-putting to visitors and businesses is heaviest along the border. The Democratic takeover of Congress should help — a lot of blue states are along the northern border.
Something clearly has gone wrong since 9/11. Western Washington University's Center for Economics and Business Research tracks the correlation between the dollar-exchange rate and Canadians crossing the border at Blaine. From 1990 until 2002, whenever the exchange rate rose for Canadians, more came south to shop and visit. But after 2002, the lines diverged — the Canadian dollar climbed from 65 percent of the U.S. dollar in 2002 to nearly 90 percent in 2007, but southbound border crossings remained at their 2002 level.
Canadians are as canny about their dollar as Americans, but they — and many others as well — perceive an American border that is increasingly hostile to visitors.
That is bad for America. Surveys show that if foreigners actually visit, their opinions are much higher than if they only learn about the U.S. from others. The American tourist industry earns more than $65 billion a year from international travelers, but of equal importance is our standing in the community of nations.
Our leaders don't seem to get it. Their latest scheme is to require foreign visitors to produce 10 fingers for fingerprinting, which will go into a world databank that now has 80 million prints. Current practice is two fingers, already a distinct irritation to travelers who do not think of themselves as terrorism suspects.
The 10-finger plan is promoted by Paul Rosenzweig, a Department of Homeland Security "privacy expert" who staunchly defended the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program, which was so inclusive in its mining of private data that the Republican Congress shut it down in 2003. These people don't go away; they are like vacuum cleaners for private data.
Sophisticated travelers are accustomed to passing European borders without checkpoints, and being treated as if their tourism and business are welcome.
All of them have passports, but passports are just the tip of the iceberg. We mishandle our borders in other ways that hurt America and do nothing to stop terrorism.
Security doesn't require bad manners.
Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org