A border patrol agent monitors the Canada–US border in Montana.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Before September 11, 2001, more than half the border crossings between the United States and Canada were left unguarded at night, with only rubber cones separating the two countries. Since then, that 4,000 mile "point of pride," as Toronto's Globe and Mail once dubbed it, has increasingly been replaced by a US homeland security lockdown, although it's possible that, like Egyptian-American Abdallah Matthews, you haven't noticed.
The first time he experiences this newly hardened US-Canada border, it takes him by surprise. It's a freezing late December day and Matthews, a lawyer (who asked me to change his name), is on the passenger side of a car as he and three friends cross the Blue Water Bridge from Sarnia, Ontario, to the old industrial town of Port Huron, Michigan. They are returning from the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto, chatting and happy to be almost home when the car pulls up to the booth, where a blue-uniformed US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent stands. The 60,000-strong CBP is the border enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security and includes both customs and US Border Patrol agents. What is about to happen is the furthest thing from Matthews's mind. He's from Port Huron and has crossed this border "a million times before."
After scanning their passports and looking at a computer screen in the booth, the agent says to the driver, as Matthews tells the story:
"Sir, turn off the vehicle, hand me the key, and step out of the car."
He hears the snap of handcuffs going around his friend's wrists. Disoriented, he turns around and sees uniformed men kneeling behind their car, firearms drawn.
"To my disbelief, situated behind us are agents, pointing their guns."
The CBP officer asks Matthews and the remaining passengers to get out of the car and escorts them to a waiting room. Thirty minutes later, he, too, is handcuffed and in a cell. Forty-five minutes after that another homeland security agent brings him into a room with no chairs. The agent tells him that he can sit down, but all he sees is a countertop. "Can I just stand?" he asks.
And he does so for what seems like an eternity with the door wide open, attempting to smile at the agents who pass by. "I'm trying to be nice," is how he put it.
Finally, in a third room, the interrogation begins. Although they question Matthews about his religious beliefs and various Islamic issues, the two agents are "nice." They ask him: Where'd you go? What kind of law do you practice? He tells them that a former law professor was presenting a paper at the annual conference, whose purpose is to revive "Islamic traditions of education, tolerance, and introspection." They ask if he's received military training abroad. This, he tells me, "stood out as one of their more bizarre questions." When the CBP lets him and his friends go, he still thinks it was a mistake.
However, Lena Masri of the Council of American Islamic Relations-Michigan (CAIR-MI) reports that Matthews's experience is becoming "chillingly" commonplace for Michigan's Arab and Muslim community at border crossings. In 2012, CAIR-MI was receiving five to seven complaints about similar stops per week. The detainees are all Arab, all male, all questioned at length. They are asked about religion, if they spend time at the mosque, and who their Imam is.
According to CAIR-MI accounts, CBP agents repeatedly handcuff these border-crossers, often brandish weapons, conduct invasive, often sexually humiliating body searches, and detain people for from two to 12 hours. Because of this, some of the detainees have lost job opportunities or jobs, or given up on educational opportunities in Canada. Many are now afraid to cross the border to see their families who live in Canada. (CAIR-MI has filed a lawsuit against the CBP and other governmental agencies.)
Months later, thinking there is no way this can happen again, Matthews travels to Canada and crosses the border, this time alone, on the Blue Water Bridge to Port Huron. Matthews still hadn't grasped the seismic changes in Washington's attitude toward our northern border since 9/11. Port Huron, his small hometown, where a protest group, Students for a Democratic Society, first famously declared themselves against racism and alienation in 1962, is now part of the "frontline" in defense of the "homeland." As a result, Matthews finds himself a casualty of a new war, one that its architects and proponents see as a permanent bulwark not only against non-citizens generally, but also people like Matthews from "undesirable" ethno-religious groups or communities in the United States.
While a militarized enforcement regime has long existed in the U.S-Mexico borderlands, its far more intense post-9/11 version is also proving geographically expansive. Now, the entire US perimeter has become part of a Fortress USA mentality and a lockdown reality. Unlike on our southern border, there is still no wall to our north on what was once dubbed the "longest undefended border in the world." But don't let that fool you. The US-Canadian border is increasingly a national security hotspot watched over by drones, surveillance towers, and agents of the Department of Homeland Security.
The Canadian Threat
Bert Tussing, US Army War College Homeland Defense and Security Director, realizes that when people think of border security, what immediately comes to mind is the US-Mexico border. After all, he is speaking in El Paso, Texas, where in the early 1990s the massive transformation and expansion of the border enforcement apparatus was born. Operation Blockade (later renamed Operation Hold-the-Line) became the Clinton administration's blueprint for the walls, double-fencing, cameras, sensors, stadium-lighting, and concentration of Border Patrol agents now seen in urbanized areas—and some rural ones as well—from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California. Tussing believes that this sort of intense surveillance, which has literally deformed communities throughout the southwest, should be brought to the northern border as well.
A former Marine with close-cropped brown hair, Tussing has a Napoleonic stature and despises being stuck behind a podium. "I kind of like moving around," he quips before starting "The Changing Role of the Military in Border Security Operations," his talk at last October's Border Management Conference and Technology Expo.
Perhaps Tussing realizes that his audience holds a new breed of border-security entrepreneur when his initial Army-Marine joke falls flat. Behind the small audience are booths from 74 companies selling their border-security wares. These nomadic malls of the surveillance state are popping up in ever more places each year.
Hanging from the high ceiling is a white surveillance aerostat made by an Israeli company. Latched onto the bottom of this billowing balloon are cameras that, even 150 feet away, can zoom in on the comments I'm scrawling in my notebook. Nearby sits a mannequin in a beige body suit, equipped with a gas mask. It's all part of the equipment and technology that the developing industry has in mind for our southern border, and increasingly the northern one as well.
Tussing homes in on a 2010 statistic: 59,000 people ("illegals if you will") tried to enter the United States from countries "other than Mexico, the euphemistic OTMs." Six hundred and sixty-three of these "OTMs" were from countries Tussing calls "special-interest nations" such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia, and also from countries the US has identified as state-sponsors of terrorism like Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria.
Next, he turns to the U.S-Canada divide, mentioning the 1999 case of Ahmed Ressam who would have become "the millennium bomber," if not for an astute US Customs agent in Washington state. Here, as Tussing sees it, is the crux of the problem: "We found over time that he was able to do what he was to do because of the comparatively liberal immigration and asylum laws that exist today in Canada, which allowed him a safe haven. Which allowed him a planning area. Which allowed him an opportunity to build bombs. Which allowed him an opportunity to arrange his logistics." He pauses. "This is not to say that Canada's laws are wrong, but they are different from ours."
A Government Accountablity Office report, he adds, claims that "the risk of terrorist activity is high along the northern border." Of that 4,000-mile border between the two countries, he adds, "only 32 of those miles are categorized as what we say are acceptable levels of control."
As what Tussing calls the "coup de grâce" to his argument for reinforcements of every sort along that border, he quotes Alan Bersin, former director of Customs and Border Protection: "In terms of the terrorist threat, it's more commonly accepted that the most significant threat comes from the north," not the south.