Living on the U.S.-Canadian border comes with a twist: There’s plenty of arguing, but usually not with the people on the other side.
Take Rep. Brian Higgins, the South Buffalo Democrat whose district includes three of Western New York’s four international passenger bridges. He saw the Trump administration shift dozens of U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel from Buffalo to the U.S.-Mexico border last summer, and wait times at bridge crossings jumped accordingly, on some days by as much as 20 minutes. And he got frustrated. Higgins has long wanted to see cross-border traffic flow more smoothly, especially between Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo on the Peace Bridge. But this frustration seemed like a deeper one, an ideological one.
Higgins saw President Trump promising to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and then shifting resources south to handle the hundreds of thousands of people coming from Central America, through Mexico, into the United States. Higgins scoffed at the rhetoric and at the policy.
“This is the forgotten border,” said Higgins, who is co-chair of the House’s Northern Border Caucus. There is “too much time and effort being focused on the southern border,” Higgins added.
A large number of the people attempting to enter the United States through Mexico – and subsequently being detained by federal law enforcement – are fleeing poverty and violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. “If the president wanted to manage the problem effectively – because previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, were able to manage the situation effectively – he would be addressing the root cause of why people are fleeing those three primarily Central American countries,” Higgins said.
To Higgins, this is the Trump administration’s “mismanagement of the northern border.” But Trump’s top border official is pleased to punch right back on that one. “I can guarantee you that the northern border – to include Buffalo – they’re not forgotten,” said acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan, during a late summer visit to the Peace Bridge. “That’s just simply not true.”
Morgan acknowledged that 56 field operations officers – the people who screen border travelers – were sent from the Buffalo area to the southern border over the summer. “Let’s make no mistake: The resources had to be pulled off because Congress has failed to do their job,” said Morgan, emphasizing the president’s call for “meaningful legislation to address loopholes in our immigration process.”
Morgan acknowledged the impact on wait times in primary-inspection lanes, which Buffalo-area CBP officials explained happened because with less personnel, they didn't want to cut short their staffing for more involved security-enforcement screenings.
"There’s no apology for that," Morgan said of the shift of personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border. "It needed to happen. We had no other choice to really address a crisis down on the southwest border."
Debate between legislators and homeland security officials over border strategy isn't new. It happened, too, during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations – sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly – and the essence of the argument is this: What is getting attention? What is getting staffed? What is getting funded?
"We have to prioritize the limited resources that we have," Morgan said. "And right now, the priority, of course, is the crisis along the southwest border."
That's a snapshot of border politics within our own country, and it's no surprise: Families bicker, and so do political officials. But when we look across the river, things get smoother. If you set aside the occasional stinging soundbite that may zing between politically opposite heads of state like President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, our relationship with Canada is typically polite. And the 5,525-mile boundary that separates us is the longest and one of the most peaceful in the world.
You could even call it serene.
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The U.S.-Canadian border is largely unmanned and, on the whole, safe. There’s drug trafficking — but not as much as on the southern border. There’s illegal immigration, but markedly less than on the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. Border Patrol, which operates between ports of entry, made 396,579 apprehensions at the southern border in fiscal year 2018, and just 4,316 at the northern border. During that same time frame, the Border Patrol seized 458,834 pounds of marijuana and 11,302 pounds of heroin at the southern border. But at the northern border, agents seized 1,465 pounds of marijuana and 54 pounds of heroin.
“In some respects, I would say it’s a much calmer border than the southwest border,” said Janet Napolitano, who served as secretary of homeland security during the first half of the Obama administration. “It certainly has gotten less attention from a security standpoint than the border with Mexico.”
Several homeland security officials interviewed emphasized that the key to northern border security is trusting partnerships with Canadian law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies. “We have to work very closely with our allies in Canada in case there’s an individual who presents any kind of security threat or a suspicious load of cargo, or something of that sort,” said Napolitano, who authored a book on homeland security, "How Safe Are We?" “It’s a much more individually based approach to the border than the southwest border, where we have lots of practices and policies in place to guard against illegal immigration and illegal narcotics.”
That’s in part because the border is so open, and in part because the United States deploys less law enforcement personnel to it. Border Patrols staffing figures offer insight into this: While the southern border has 16,608 agents assigned to it in fiscal year 2018, the northern border had 2,097.
“We had far fewer resources on the northern border, it’s a longer border, and then you have so many natural crossings that happen recreationally,” said former CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, who served under Obama. Kerlikowske pointed to a CBP program that allows boaters to cross the border on water and check in by phone or app. “It’s pretty clear that it’s more loose on the northern border.”
At the same time, U.S.-Canadian law enforcement around the border is tightly coordinated. Both countries’ border agencies are in consistent communication about people crossing both legally and illegally. At the Eastern Air Defense Sector command center in Rome, Canadian military members sit side by side with U.S. service members, monitoring the skies over North America. In the water, a bilateral program called Shiprider allows Canadian officers to ride on U.S. Coast Guard vessels, which permits enforcement on both sides of the border. If a Coast Guard vessel found narcotics in a boat on the Ontario side of Lake Erie, for example, the Canadian officer could legally make arrests.
“Throughout the whole system, we share almost all of our information, and we trust each other,” said Phyllis Yaffe, the Canadian consul general in New York.
The Buffalo office of Homeland Security Investigations oversees two Border Enforcement Security Task Forces. These units, which are located in Buffalo and Massena, include law enforcement officials from both countries. (In Massena, they also include tribal police from Akwesasne.) The officers, who come from local, state, provincial and federal agencies, work from the same office to find and follow investigative leads in both countries. They investigate a wide range of border-related threats, including drug and weapons smuggling, financial crimes, cyber crimes, human trafficking, child exploitation, intellectual property theft, transnational gang activities.
“There’s constant dialogue and communication, whether it be on a cyberthreat or a narcotics smuggling organization,” said Kevin Kelly, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ Buffalo office. While officers from both countries work with their desks side by side in the downtown Buffalo office, the agency also has special agents in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and other Canadian cities. “They are our eyes and ears in Canada,” Kelly said.
Homeland Security Investigations works closely with Canadian law enforcement to carry out long-term and large-scale investigations. One example is a multi-year cocaine smuggling investigation that recently wrapped: Investigators uncovered evidence that revealed the smuggling of 6,600 pounds of cocaine into Canada. Those drugs had a street value of $120 million. Fourteen people were arrested in the United States and Canada as part of the smuggling ring. Search warrants were executed in multiple cities across the United States and Canada and were coordinated simultaneously to avoid member of the network from tipping off each other.
"It works," Kelly said of the coordinated efforts between the two countries. "The greatest thing we have is Canadian assets in here."
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The relationship isn't perfect.
U.S. and Canadian officials have squabbled, even on the local level. Six years ago, Canadian and American members of the Peace Bridge Authority battled bitterly over what Gov. Andrew Cuomo felt was a lack of progress on the Buffalo plaza. The disagreements were worked out by Cuomo and the Canadian ambassador, and today, the members of the authority are getting along.
That seems to be the standard for the Peace Bridge Authority and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, which runs operations, infrastructure and toll collections at the Rainbow, Whirlpool and Lewiston-Queenston bridges. The bridge authorities are overseen by boards that are evenly split between American and Canadian members.
“We will react to certain things in a very similar way,” said Michael Goodale, a Canadian commissioner with the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. He pointed to Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel, which no longer stand. Though that was an instance of an American president imposing a penalty on Canada – which Canada then reciprocated – the commissioners from both countries viewed it the same. “We’d be totally in agreement around the board table that it would be good if the two governments could resolve this issue,” Goodale said, “because our traffic is now impacted.”
The same is true for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement that is in the process of being ratified by all three countries. While politicians and policymakers debate the specifics, people at the ground level — including the bridge commission, which is charged with making sure people and trade flow freely over the border – simply want specifics. Whatever the details of the deal, the agreement moving forward allows companies from both countries to make decisions about investing and moving freight in both directions.
“I think a lot of them hold off with that uncertainty,” said Stephanie Dafoe, manager of human resources, agency relations and security for the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. “That’s really important for us. That’s a big win for us to have that certainty in place.”
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Canada is the United States' second-biggest trading partner, behind China, with more than $718 billion in goods and services exchanged between the two countries in 2018.
The importance of that relationship plays a strong economic role in the Western New York. Ford Motor Co.'s Buffalo Stamping Plant in Woodlawn has historically benefited from the presence of the automaker's assembly site in Oakville, Ont. Rich Products, the Buffalo-based food company, has a plant across the river in Fort Erie.
The fan base for both of Buffalo's big-league sports teams is bolstered by Canadian customers, with about 10% of Bills season ticket holders coming from Canada, and 15% for the Sabres. The Buffalo Niagara International Airport counts Canadians as 42% of its passenger traffic. D’Youville College, located just off the Peace Bridge, has a strong Canadian enrollment in health professions programs, including chiropractic (36%), family nurse practitioner (20%) and pharmacy (8%). Niagara University, located just off the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, has more than 300 Canadian students who comprise 14% of the school's enrollment. Canadians shoppers are vital for the survival of some of Western New York's malls, and a healthy part of the consumer base for local restaurants, theaters and other attractions.
“I would argue that we’re doing all of this with one hand tied behind our backs because the situation at the northern border,” said Higgins, who met with CBP Acting Commissioner Morgan in August when the commissioner was in town to meet with CBP personnel and speak at a trade event. Their conversation was, by all accounts, cordial, and Morgan allotted some of his speaking time to Higgins.
There's dialogue, and though it doesn't allay Higgins's long-standing concerns, he's open to helping CBP, too. In an interview with The News, Higgins referenced a CBP report that says Congress needs to fund an additional 3,200 customs officers to meet staffing needs at ports of entry. “Look, I understand that and I will fight for that," Higgins said, noting that the northern border alone has 120 ports of entry.
“But in exchange,” he added, “I want a commitment from the administration not to divert resources away from the northern border.”
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The Other Border
This is the eighth of eight installments in this series. Buffalo News staff reporter Tim O'Shei and chief photographer Derek Gee traveled the U.S-Canadian border along the length of New York state to report this series, which wraps next week with a look at border politics and the implications of the typically strong relationship between the United States and Canada. Here's a look at the stories so far:
• "At the the U.S.-Canadian border, relative calm belies a critical mission" (Nov. 22): The introduction to our series takes readers behind the scenes at the Peace Bridge, where officers work daily to root out drugs and other contraband from international mail, to the most remote regions of northeastern New York, where the border is marked not by a waterway, but rather a simple slash through the woods.
• "Ontario to Quebec, Buffalo to Fort Blunder" (Nov. 22): Derek Gee's border photography – shot from land, air, water and by drone – is highlighted here on this interactive map:
• "You're likely to be part of the 99%. Border agents get one chance to be sure" (Nov. 26): What really happens at a border inspection? We take you through the process.
• "At Roxham Road, refugees find a loophole and safe passage to Canada" (Dec. 1): More than 50,000 people have crossed freely – and illegally – from the United States into Quebec over the last three years to claim political asylum. Most of it happens in the open and everyday at the end of rural Roxham Road near Plattsburgh.
• "Before and after crossing, seeking refuge in Canada is a long journey" (Dec. 2): Tim O'Shei visits two refugee assistance homes in southern Ontario to meet people who crossed at Roxham Road and learn about the journey that took them there, and the reality of trying to build a new life in Canada.
• "Can they really search my phone?" (Dec. 9): Yes, they can search your phone at the border — and your car, your bags, and more. In this installment, we answer readers' questions about our border travels and the policies that guide crossings between the United States and Canada.
• At Akwesasne, where the border runs straight and nothing is simple (Dec. 13): In this Mohawk Nation territory, there are seven roadways and two rivers where people can cross the border without a security check. For people with nefarious motives, that jagged geography is alluring.
For a behind-the-scenes look at our reporting of "The Other Border," listen to Jay Moran interview on WBFO with Gee, O'Shei and Chief Customs and Border Protection Officer Aaron Bowker. You can also watch our Facebook Live interview during which Bowker answered questions from readers.