On Saturday evening, Jan. 4, I was driving back from visiting family in Vancouver to my new home in Bellingham, Wash., when I ran into a massive line of border traffic at the Peace Arch crossing. Just two days prior, a U.S. drone strike had killed Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, and it occurred to me I might be witnessing a small piece of a security crackdown all along the U.S. borders.
But the truth has turned out to be far stranger. As was reported last week by Blaine’s The Northern Light newspaper, the border crackdown was not a national operation. It was a local one. At the direction of top officials in the Seattle Field Operation office, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers were pulling aside all crossers of Iranian origin, including many Canadian and U.S. citizens. Dozens of people were held at the border for as long as 12 hours and interrogated extensively before finally being released.
The operation was not just an isolated occurrence. Those entering the United States at Peace Arch and other western border ports of entry are facing a stepped-up enforcement regime that creates significant risks for all southbound travellers.
From 2018 to 2019, for example, the number of border crossers slapped with five-year bans barring them from entering the United States more than tripled from 91 to 309 at crossings overseen by the Seattle office, according to CBP data provided to CTV News. Even with the stepped-up border enforcement under the Trump administration, that was a far bigger increase than anywhere else along the U.S. border with Canada.
The legal provision, known as “expedited removal,” (ER) is an extreme measure that allows front-line CBP officers to bar re-entry to anyone who arrives at the border without valid entry documents, or is thought to be making fraudulent claims. Canada has no law that permits comparable penalties against U.S. citizens.
Lawyers for business groups in B.C. and Washington State say the expanded use of the provision is chilling trade and travel across the border. For example, some 18 Canadian truck drivers were recently hit with ER orders. They were engaged in a long-permitted practice of driving goods from the northern U.S. to the border with Mexico, where the goods were then picked up for delivery in Mexico.
The Seattle office is now ruling that this constitutes illegal transport within the United States, and that U.S.-based drivers must carry those loads. Instead of hitting the companies or drivers with fines, CBP is barring the drivers from entering the U.S. entirely. One Canadian trucking company says it lost about $1 million in business last year due to the loss of its drivers.
The new crackdown is quite different from the one that many Canadians and others experienced after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Then, the U.S. government tightened inspections and document requirements across all its land borders and airports. Indeed the number of Canadians crossing the land border has never recovered to the pre-9/11 peaks.
But local officials also possess expansive authority to launch their own crackdowns, as the operation to detain Iranians showed. CBP officers are free to ask border crossers any questions they wish, search vehicles, cell phones and other personal possessions, and even review social media accounts before permitting entry. The actions of the Seattle Field Office, which administers 54 border crossings all the way from Point Roberts, Washington to International Falls, Minnesota, show the discretion that local officials have to interpret CBP’s legal authorities in harsher ways.
An internal CBP memo leaked last week showed that the local office issued a “high threat alert” directing that anyone born in Iran, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories between 1961 and 2001 would be pulled into secondary screening for extensive vetting. CBP headquarters in Washington, D.C. said the actions by the local office are under investigation, and that “there is no rule that would permit us to target or stop individuals based on their nationality alone.”
One woman held at Peace Arch on Jan. 4 was born in Iran, but left 20 years ago with her family and is now a Canadian citizen, a U.S. green card holder, and holds a Nexus card, which required extensive security background checks by U.S. and Canadian authorities. Nonetheless, CBP officers pulled her into secondary screening at 5 p.m. on Saturday evening, interrogated her about family, friends and travel history, and did not release her until 5 a.m. the following day.
The recent actions should trigger much harder questions from both the B.C. and Washington State governments, and from Ottawa as well. If left unchecked, these initiatives by local CBP officials are likely to further chill cross-border travel and commerce, and drive a deeper wedge between the two countries.
Despite the generally strong economy on both sides of the border, and a stable Canadian dollar, the number of vehicle passengers crossing the border has fallen over the past year. An unpredictable border is a blow to the economy of Whatcom County, which relies heavily on Canadian consumers, but also discourages Americans from coming north to visit or do business in the Vancouver region.
State and provincial officials have talked grandly about the development of a “Cascadia Innovation Corridor” that would strengthen innovation and economic growth across the Pacific Northwest. But that dream rests on seamless travel across the border between B.C. and Washington State. Instead, thanks to increasingly aggressive border enforcement, the region is headed in the opposite direction.