Up north, the worry on border is economic
By Judy Keen, USA TODAY
INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. —
Disputes about illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border are distant and irrelevant to many people here. But the national debate over border security hit closer to home this weekend when 17 Canadians were arrested and charged in a bomb plot in Ontario.
TERROR PLOT: USA wasn't targeted
Some people here on the USA's northern edge have been hoping to ease security that was beefed up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Almost five years after those attacks, Cindy Servis, who carves wood statues, wasn't fretting about terrorists. "Why would they want to be here? It's so far from everything," Servis, 36, said before the arrests.
Glen Schroeder, chief Border Patrol agent for this area, said loosening security, even in this remote town, would be a mistake. "I look at any spot on the border as a potential terrorist crossing," he said.
The Rainy River separates International Falls from Fort Frances, Ontario. To many people, the towns seem like one community. Paper mills nestle up to the river banks on both sides. The movie theater is in Minnesota; skating and curling rinks are in Ontario. In the summer, fishing boats dot the river. In the winter, it's easy to walk, skate or snowmobile across.
Terry Stone, who sells electronics and Honduran cigars a few blocks from the bridge linking the USA and Canada, said he believes more security is bad for business. He's afraid he'll lose customers under a law requiring U.S. citizens to show passports or new ID cards containing computer chips — instead of driver's licenses — to cross the border for the fishing and hunting that lure tourists here. Most vacationers here spend time in both countries.
That law is to take effect in 2008, though the Senate has voted to postpone it until 2009.
Feeling the economic effects
Stone and others who believe security is already too tight said the law is another threat to the local economy. Business from Canada "turned off like a spigot" when tougher security after 9/11 made it harder to cross the International Bridge, Stone said, and he can't afford to lose more American customers if they decide to vacation elsewhere to avoid new hassles.
It's rare for illegal immigrants to cross the border here, and some of this town's 6,700 residents said fear of terrorism has faded. "It's almost a shame that we have to waste all the resources here," said Stone, 59.
"There aren't a ton of Canadians clawing and scrapping to come into our country by night," Police Chief Chris Raboin said.
The City Council wrote to members of Congress in May urging that driver's licenses that can be computer-scanned be accepted for border crossings in addition to passports and new IDs. "Do we really think terrorists lack the means to forge passports?" The Daily Journal of International Falls asked in an editorial May 17.
At least one terrorist has entered the USA from Canada. In December 1999, Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., as he drove off a ferry from Canada in a car containing explosives and timing devices. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison for planning to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.
Others have questioned additional security measures at the Canadian border:
• Last month, the premiers of five Canadian provinces and the governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire agreed to oppose the passport law because it would hurt trade, tourism and the daily lives of residents.
• Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land is pressing the federal government to allow driver's licenses with embedded data for border crossings.
• In March, a proposal to study building a wall on the 3,145-mile U.S.-Canadian border was deleted from a Senate bill. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said supporters of the "cockamamie" idea "haven't a clue about the character, the history and the day-to-day commercial importance" of the border.
Changes since 9/11
Crossing the border legally has become more complicated and high-tech since 9/11. Even residents known by border agents must show a driver's license and sometimes answer questions about why they are entering the USA. All trucks and trains and many campers and boats on trailers are scanned by a device that creates images of what's inside.
The Border Patrol won't release exact figures, but Schroeder said the number of agents patrolling the region has quadrupled. Staffing at three local entry points has more than doubled, said port director Linda Loveless of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Agents carry radiation detectors. New security cameras are in place. "There's no indication that something's going to happen here, but it could happen anywhere," Loveless said. The passport law, she said, "will actually speed traffic" because it's quicker to scan passports than to type driver's license numbers into a computer.
Bob Neuenschwander owns Border Bob's, a gift shop open from May to October. He said he supports tougher enforcement and a fence on the U.S.-Mexican border and said people here "want to see that situation resolved." Nevertheless, he's sure his business already is being hurt by the passport law because prospective visitors "hear all the talk and decide to go somewhere else."
Paul Nevanen, International Falls' economic development director, said a drop in tourism — second only to the paper mill in its effect on the economy — could be devastating. "We've got to have secure borders," he said. "But we don't want an overblown security situation that really isn't necessary."
Still, even Stone — who called his hometown "a little hole in the middle of nowhere" — hasn't quite shaken fears of terrorism. "God help us," he said, "if somebody should be asleep at the wheel."
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