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CROSSING THE RIVER FOR LUNCH AND IDEAS

A badly written law passed by Congress in 1996 has turned out to have one bright -- though surely unintended -- consequence.

State legislators from Western New York and their counterparts in the Ontario Parliament met the other day at a get-acquainted luncheon to proclaim unified opposition to part of the law. Congress provided something the two groups could fight as a team.

The common anger is about an immigration law requiring all non-Americans to prove their identities with documents every time they cross the border. While the purpose is to stop illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexican border, a blind Congress made the law so general that it applies to Canadians. Very dumb. How many Canadians do you know who want to be illegal immigrants in the United States?

The law threatens to create huge traffic tie-ups as well as insulting Canadians.

Obviously there are people in Washington who don't understand the unique nature of the friendly U.S.-Canadian border. Those of us who live near it view going to Canada as an everyday, unremarkable sort of thing. Sure, the money is different and "center" is spelled "centre," but similarities far outweigh the differences. Perhaps the joint opposition being expressed by lawmakers from both sides of the Niagara River can help make the point.

The cross-border session was organized by Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, and Bart Maves, a member of the Provincial Parliament from Niagara Falls, Ont. The good news is that more such gatherings are planned. Officials at other levels of government might well join in. There's plenty to talk about, plenty to learn.

Buffalo and its neighbors are really part of a megalopolis that stretches from Toronto, around Ontario's Golden Horseshoe, to Niagara Falls, into Buffalo and south. While the border keeps governments forever separate, there are clearly common interests, both economic and cultural.

Tourism is too often viewed as competitive, with each side trying to capture all the visitors' money. The twin cities of Niagara Falls have made a start at trying to overcome that insular approach. What would happen if marketing of the Niagara area on both sides became, much more widely and with state and provincial help, a cooperative venture? How about some joint economic-development ventures? At least there could be marketing meant to point out the benefits of living and doing business at the border.

Then, too, government officials on this side might well ask about how local government works in Canada. Generally, it's much more centralized. Americans would never stand for the level of control the Ontario provincial government imposes on the local level, but it would be worthwhile for our officials to know about the regional police force across the river as differentiated from our fragmented localized police service. Are Canadians happy with it?

How about regional land-use planning? Garbage collection? In fact, there are enough local-government differences so each side could learn from the other.

Surely Congress must exempt Canadians from its immigration law, but, in the meantime, thanks go to Washington for creating a unifying issue.

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