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WHAT'S NEXT -- A BORDER OF CHECKPOINT CHARLIES?

America's free trade agreement with Canada is less than eight years old, but bureaucrats working with a handful of congressional offices are doing their best to screw it up.

Give them more rope, they won't hang themselves. They'll turn the whole border along the Niagara Frontier into a modern version of "Checkpoint Charlie."

If things get worse, will President Clinton cite tensions with Canada -- as he did with North Korea -- as a reason to defend the continued use of land mines?

An example of just how tangled things have become is a little-noticed clause in the last year's American immigration "reform" bill.

We're supposed to be opening the northern border, as a result of the 1989 FTA and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Not the case with Canadian health care practitioners, other than doctors.

Thanks to an amendment by Sen. Arlen Spector, R-Pa., Canadian visitors who need to bring nurses and other practitioners with them had better make sure they are "licensed" by a commission located, guess where -- in Pennsylvania.

Diplomats say that Spector filed the amendment as a favor to a friend. Spector's office said it was inserted by a staff aide as part of a constituent service.

Even so, Canadian nurses and other practitioners must pay through the nose to get certified by the International Commission on Healthcare Professions, a division of Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools, based in Philadelphia.

The application fee is $325, and here are some of the other fees this commission imposes: $30 for transcript information, $20 change of name or address and $75 per page as a translation fee, apparently for French-speaking professionals.

The commission says no certificate will be issued until it gets full payment and no refunds will be made on application fees.

Spector's bill was not generic. The only commission mentioned in his bill is the one in Philadelphia.

This news -- which has some Canadians chewing the rug -- takes some of the credibility out of the "gee whiz, I-didn't-know-the-gun-was-loaded" responses Clinton administration officials are giving to other aspects of the immigration "reform" law.

The most infamous and insulting aspect of the law is the one requiring gun-toting American border inspectors to stop Canadian tourists at our frontier on their way home.

Canadians have always been stopped at our border and put through a cordial grilling by our agents on their way south. We get the same thing going north.

Recently, some agents on both sides of the border have made bold to treat these visitors like aliens, demanding passports -- which is not kosher -- and sometimes other documents.

Why this is going on is buried deep within the entrails of the Canadian and American corps of inspectors.

But the new immigration reform bill mandates that in 1998 our agents test-market a Checkpoint Charlie outpost, probably at the Thousand Islands Bridge.

No U.S. Customs machine gun turrets, barbed wire or Justice Department tank traps have yet been requisitioned for the St. Lawrence River crossing. Nonetheless, our armed agents will be there to make sure that Canadians wanting nothing more than to go home prove they are truly Canadians.

U.S. Customs does not guarantee that they won't install Checkpoint Charlies in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lewiston.

Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Tonawanda, has introduced a bill that he says would eliminate the need for these indignities. His office says he is confident the thing can be taken care of this year or early next year.

The Canadians are not so sure about this. U.S. bureaucrats wanted these checkpoints on both the Mexican and Canadian borders. Canada believes the fears of offending Mexico can be a major factor in preventing a LaFalce-style correction from passing.

There are other reasons:

One is old-fashioned irresponsibility. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin runs the Customs Serive and Attorney General Janet Reno runs the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Neither cabinet member is working to clear the decks of these obvious insults to Canadians.

Another reason is xenophobia. Now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, this revived fear of aliens has taken root among certain Republicans from the Bible Belt.

Smugglers were bringing "illegal aliens" over the northern border, Rep. Mel Watt, R-N.C., said the other day. He was speaking against an attempt by LaFalce to defeat a bill that would require Americans to produce passports when they are coming home from a boating trip on say, Lake Erie.

Speaking as though the debate were about the Black Sea or the Caspian, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said darkly that the passport requirement was intended to keep the northern border "as secure as possible."

The bill passed.

Oh, carry me back to Old Pyongyang!

Isn't it time for Yassir Arafat to bring Bill Clinton and Jean Chretien together for a peace conference at Niagara on the Lake?

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