New Senate committee report on borders misses the target

A recent report produced by the majority staff of Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonCruz: Tax reform chances ‘drop significantly’ if healthcare fails GOP frets over stalled agenda Conservatives target Congress, not Trump, after healthcare collapse MORE (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, dated Nov. 23, 2015, provides some interesting data and insight about the security of our borders. The report, entitled "The State of America's Border Security," misses the target as it focuses on identification of immigration threats, with just a fleeting reference to the facilitation of legitimate trade. If you ignore the trade issue, then the feared threats will likely multiply as the number of jobs in immigrants' home countries decline.

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The report does point out that one of the primary reasons for illegal immigration is the lack of economic opportunity — as well as the lack of security — in the countries from which we experience high levels of immigration.

The report acknowledges the existence of four borders: the U.S./Mexico border, the U.S./Canadian border, the maritime borders, and other U.S. ports of entry, including airports, with the sole focus of the last group being on the visa waiver program.

The apprehension data detailed in the report from 2011 to 2014 shows a dramatic decline in northern border apprehensions (from 6,100 to 3,300, a 45 percent decline), while southern border apprehensions increased dramatically (from 327,000 to 479,000, a 46 percent increase). Recorded crossings by trains, trucks, buses, personal vehicles and pedestrians detail an enormous discrepancy in all areas but truck crossings. The northern border has substantially more train crossings (three to one), substantially less bus crossings (approximately 50 percent less), less personal vehicle crossings (approximately 45 percent less) and dramatically less pedestrian crossings (the northern border has 423,000, while the southern border has 41 million). Maritime border apprehensions were comparable to the northern border, but vacillated from 9,000 to 6,600 to 5,200 to 7,500 during the years 2011 to 2014. Data related to the number of legal admissions and refusals to the U.S. are omitted, thus limiting the value of this information for analytic purposes.

The report contains an excellent, albeit brief, discussion of the Beyond the Border Initiative (BTB), with a primary focus on the BTB's security provisions, but it ignores the trade portions of BTB. It also does not address the role of the Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC), which is the vehicle for developing strategies to reduce regulatory differences between the United States and Canada to reduce costs and improve efficiency. The BTB is in fact heavily focused on the movement of both people and goods to increase and speed up trade, which many believe assists security, as the level of vetting of both people and goods is enhanced.

During my tenure in Congress, interactions with my Canadian parliamentary colleagues and Canadian government representatives, including Ambassador Gary Doer and Consul General John Prato, clearly established the level of cooperation that exists between the U.S. and Canada on matters of security. It is an unusually efficient and effective relationship that stands above that which we have with any other jurisdiction in the world. The high-level cooperation between the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canada Border Service Agency is an integral part of our ability to maintain our security along the northern border.

The report comments on Canada's struggle to confront radicalization and homegrown terrorism. Unfortunately, as we now know from the attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that kind of terrorism can happen anywhere. In fact, Canada has had far fewer acts of homegrown terrorism than the U.S. over the last 20 years. The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security examine the threats of the northern border, but there is little factual data included to substantiate the innuendo that Canada is a source of terrorists seeking to enter the U.S.

The key, in terms of our northern border, is to focus on cooperation and the sharing of information to ensure that we limit, if not eliminate, persons who are radicalized from entering the United States to do harm.

The vast majority of those Canadians with whom I interact are people coming to the United States to do business (I think that is a good thing); to vacation here, whether in northern New York or in Florida; or to simply shop and return home the same day. Congress needs to have a realistic understanding of what transpires at the northern border, not an inaccurate assessment used to support a theory.

The contents of the report with regard to the Mexican border are all too familiar, as it focuses solely on illegal immigration, fencing (lots on fencing) and other defensive infrastructure. Mexico's important role in trade is demonstrated by the number of truck crossings noted previously — virtually the same amount as at the U.S./Canada border. Given the fact that Mexico is a growing trade partner and contributes to the nearly $20 trillion of gross domestic product generated by the United States, Canada and Mexico, to leave out any reference to trade with Mexico is an incredibly limited view of the northern hemisphere.

The report's discussion of the maritime borders largely focuses on the enforcement activities of the Coast Guard, with little or no information related to trade and tourism. Additionally, our major airports host millions of tourists who spend enormous sums in the U.S.

What might we do constructively about these issues? For one, we could redirect dollars spent on walls and fences through something akin to a Marshall Plan to Mexico and Central America to foster an environment of economic growth. We can also diligently work to implement the Beyond the Border Agreement and Regulatory Cooperation Council.

Sen. Johnson should know the facts about the northern border and focus on not only how to keep people out, but how best to facilitate trade, if he truly wants to secure our borders.

Owens represented New York's North Country from 2009 until retiring from the House in 2015. He is now a partner in the Plattsburgh, N.Y. firm of Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley, PLLC.