TOPICS > World

Northern Exposure

September 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


LEE HOCHBERG: It was two years ago that Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam tried to enter the U.S. from Canada with a trunk full of explosives and plans to bomb a major airport. He was captured and convicted. But his near-success at getting into the U.S. showed the two countries face a formidable challenge of keeping terrorists out of Canada, and keeping those in Canada out of the U.S. Today the FBI is investigating if any of the September 11 hijackers came through Canada.

MARTIN COLLACOTT: Canada is a convenient staging ground because it’s relatively easy to get in here and relatively easy to move around even after you’ve been identified.

LEE HOCHBERG: Martin Collacott says the problem starts with Canada’s liberal immigration policy. A former Canadian ambassador, and director for security in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Collacott says the Canadian government has identified at least 50 international terrorist groups operating in Canada.

MARTIN COLLACOTT: Unless you make fundamental changes to the way in which we let people in the country so easily, you’re not going to solve the problem. If you’re a terrorist or a criminal and you want to settle somewhere in the West, this is the place to come.

LEE HOCHBERG: Critics like Collacott fault Canada’s program for accepting refugees, people seeking political asylum or escaping war torn nations. Canada accepts more refugees per capita than any country in the world; 40,000 may enter this year. Critics say some of them are not refugees but terrorists taking advantage of lax refugee entrance requirements.

MARTIN COLLACOTT: Once they arrive at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, with no document or with a forged document, or at the American border, we say, “well, you got us; you’re in our territory; you’re into the system.” This is a perfect way for terrorists to come in.

LEE HOCHBERG: Refugees are required to appear at a hearing weeks later, after a background check, but Collacott says many instead scatter across the country. If they’re found, Canada puts few resources into deporting them. Ahmad Ressam, for example, was denied refugee status in Canada because he had a criminal background, but he was allowed to stay in the country because of Algeria’s unstable climate. He later left Canada and went to Afghanistan, and got back into Canada using a fake passport.

MARTIN COLLACOTT: We’ve got all sorts of humanitarian, compassionate considerations and risk considerations that, even if someone’s a terrorist, we don’t want to put them at risk, so we don’t send them back.

LEE HOCHBERG: Collacott and others argue Canada should hold refugee claimants in detention long enough to complete an extensive background check. But immigration lawyers and refugee advocates say that would punish desperate refugees, and be expensive for Canadians. Vancouver lawyer Catherine Sas:

CATHERINE SAS: Where’s the money going to come from to do that? And who are we going to detain? Are we only going to detain refugee claimants? Or are we going to detain everybody who comes in? How are we going to effect the commerce that needs to be done in our nation if we’re going to detain everybody?

LEE HOCHBERG: The Canadian parliament is debating legislation to streamline the deportation process. The bill has passed the House of Commons, but awaits the Senate.

SPOKESMAN: Who’s Lena? So, when you heading back to the Philippines?

LEE HOCHBERG: While debate continues on refugee policy, people continue to stream across the U.S./Canadian border, the longest unguarded border in the world. Immigration agents at the Blaine, Washington, crossing, are looking under hoods and inside suitcases. But some agents are working 16- hour shifts. Washington Congressman Rick Larsen, whose district includes the border, has visited it several times since September 11 and says some of the $20 billion Congress passed to fight terrorism should go to beef up border staff.

REP. RICK LARSEN: It’s an incredible amount of pressure that they’re under to maintain security. But you can’t put in a 16-hour day and be as sharp as you need to be.

LEE HOCHBERG: Larsen wants 170 new Immigration and Customs agents at the Washington border. But the problem is not just a matter of personnel. INS Inspector Ernest McGeachy told the Congressman the computer system he uses to check backgrounds on suspicious drivers often doesn’t work.

ERNEST McGEACHY: I would say about 20%-30% it is down, so we don’t have information to anything.

REP. RICK LARSEN: 20%-30% of the time, the system itself is down?

ERNEST McGEACHY: That’s correct.

REP. RICK LARSEN: So you can’t even check your own database?

ERNEST McGEACHY: That’s correct. We don’t know if that individual is a terrorist; we don’t know anything.

LEE HOCHBERG: Even when it works, the system requires McGeachy to access ten to twelve separate INS databases, and then it doesn’t provide him all of the information other law enforcement agencies know about the driver.

ERNEST McGEACHY: We don’t have access to a lot of FBI databases. We don’t have access to lot of state department databases that we need to identify people who are on the watch list. When we encounter them at the border here, the system we have right now doesn’t identify terrorists.

LEE HOCHBERG: Ahmed Ressam was caught only because Customs inspectors thought he looked nervous, not because of any information that appeared on databases. Larsen says the system reflects turf battles between U.S. law enforcement agencies.

REP. RICK LARSEN: Agencies want to hold on to the information that they have, but they’ve got to rethink what they’re doing with that information. If we’re going to fight the war on terrorism, we have to be sure to win the war within the bureaucracies, and tear down these walls and share this information.

LEE HOCHBERG: Better coordination may be needed between the two nations as well. For several years they’ve discussed synchronizing U.S. and Canadian policies on immigration. Since September 11, the U.S. has intensified pressure on Canada to create a perimeter around the two countries. But the concept has stirred resistance in Canada. Last week, Prime Minister Jean Chretien said: “We will allow no one to force us to sacrifice our values and traditions under the pressure of urgent circumstances. We will continue to welcome people from the whole world.” Meeting at the White House this week both Prime Minister Chretien and President Bush said their countries are united in the campaign to fight terrorism.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We discussed the need for us to continue to work peacefully along a huge border. Border relations between Canada and Mexico have never been better. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the prime minister and the Canadian people will work hard to make sure that Canada is secure from any terrorist activity that takes place, just like i can assure the prime minister we’re doing the same. We both have a mutual responsibility in our hemisphere to find and disrupt terrorist organizations.

LEE HOCHBERG: Both leaders also said their countries would continue their discussions in the weeks ahead.