A group of Republican lawmakers say it’s time to protect the border. No, not that border. The other one, north of the United States. The one many Americans forget.
Their focus: the frontier with Canada.
That northern border usually is an afterthought in American politics, comfortably ensconced on the back burner of the country’s searing debates about the Mexican border.
More than two dozen Republicans have a mission to change that, and they held a news conference outside the Capitol on Tuesday.
They announced the creation of a new northern border security caucus, aimed at flagging concerns about the perennially disregarded frontier with Canada.
Its creation comes as part of a reality check about American political attitudes.
Canadians are well aware of the surge in northbound migration, with people crossing into Canada from Roxham Road in Quebec, spurring Ottawa to plead for a new migration pact with the U.S.
What’s gotten less attention is the exponential surge in migration going the other way.
These American politicians want more people to realize there’s a historic increase from Canada involving foreign migrants entering the U.S., and even Canadians with criminal records trying to sneak in undetected.
One speaker after another acknowledged that the scale of this challenge is minuscule compared to the border with Mexico, but said it’s time to pay attention.
The group’s wish list is still ill-defined, but what they clearly want is more monitoring technology, and more agents, which means more jobs in their border districts.
‘We are being assaulted’
“We are being assaulted because we don’t have a border,” said Ryan Zinke, a congressman from Montana who served briefly in Trump’s cabinet.
“This is a national security problem and the northern tier has their own set of challenges.”
Tuesday’s events shed light on challenges on all sides: for this particular group of politicians, for the U.S. and for Canada.
Illegal crossings of the Canada/U.S. border in sub-freezing temps continued last week, as #BorderPatrol Agents apprehended 115 subjects from 12 countries—mostly Mexican nationals. Unfortunately, perilous weather has done nothing to deter this traffic. Don’t risk it! @USBPChief pic.twitter.com/Sjhhz0qJPP
The limited interest in Canadian migration was evident inside and outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
Not a single American reporter showed up to ask any questions at the outdoor press conference.
The only questions were from Canadian journalists, and they were about things like about how the countries could co-operate on migration.
That’s not what some of the politicians came to talk about.
After a few such queries, the most senior politician there, the No. 3 House Republican, Elise Stefanik, interjected to urge a focus on what truly matters here: There’s a border crisis, and it’s President Joe Biden’s fault.
It was a similar theme inside the Capitol on Tuesday at the first hearing of the new Republican majority in the House homeland security committee.
The hearing was about the consequences on states across the country of lax borders, with migrants and drugs spilling into every state.
At this border hearing, Canada wasn’t even an afterthought.
This was made clear when a witness from Michigan shared a heart-wrenching story about her two sons being killed by fentanyl-laced pills.
The committee chairman, Mark Green, pointed out: “You’re in Michigan. … Quite a ways from the border.”
In fact, the witness, Rebecca Kiessling, a conservative activist, lives in Rochester Hills, Mich., a 40-minute drive from Canada in moderate Detroit traffic.
That’s because the border, in U.S. political parlance, “the” border is almost always the one approximately 24 hours of drive time south of Kiessling’s home, to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
This group of northern conservatives wants to change that. Fox News and other U.S. outlets have, in fact, written about the massive migration surge from Canada.
The increase is real.
The recent trend
Statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show exponential growth in migration from Canada, with more than 55,000 encounters in the first four months of this fiscal year — almost eight times the 2021 rate.
These encounters can include anything from an arrest to an asylum claim, and they’ve disproportionately involved citizens of India, Mexico and Canada.
At the recent pace, there would be almost 170,000 such encounters at the northern border this year, which, for context, is barely five per cent of the comparable number for the southern border with Mexico, which is trending toward three million encounters.
Yet these lawmakers want Americans to realize drugs like fentanyl and cocaine are also coming through Canada, albeit in smaller amounts.
“These numbers are outrageous. And they can not go unanswered,” said Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican from Michigan.
“We’re here today to say, ‘We do have a problem. Let’s work together to fix it.'”
What they want is better technology for communications and detection, of the sort more frequently deployed on the southern border.
They also want more border agents.
One Republican from Texas told a story about meeting border agents in his district who’d been redeployed — five times — from their normal posting in the north.
The lawmakers distributed stats: barely 10 per cent of U.S. border patrol agents are stationed along the Canadian frontier.
New York Republican Nick Longworthy said his part of the country has been left understaffed because border agencies are underfunded and struggling.
“Border patrol resources [are] trying to put a tourniquet on a gushing crisis at the southern border,” he said.
Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota said he’s sure Canadians are frustrated too. He said the Biden administration is allowing unlawful movement, while blocking lawful movement and trade with a continuing vaccine mandate for travel and his rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.
There was no Canada-bashing at the event.
Several speakers did mention, as a factor driving the phenomenon, Canada’s more permissive policies, such as visa-free travel for Mexicans and less stringent student-visa rules.
They suggested that people who can’t get into the U.S. lawfully have an incentive to travel to Canada and try entering illegally.
One border-union official at the event referred to the tragic case involving a family of four from India last year: The father got a Canadian student visa, and the whole family subsequently froze to death while trying to walk into the U.S. from Manitoba.
What does this mean for Canada?
There’s no guarantee this political effort winds up affecting Canada.
But it’s a sign of the political pressure Biden faces at home on immigration — as Canada asks him to accept more migrants.
The governments of Canada and Quebec are pushing for the expansion of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement.
But the U.S. ambassador to Ottawa, in a recent interview with CBC News, refused to even acknowledge the countries are discussing this.
One Washington-based immigration expert, Theresa Cardinal Brown, told CBC News the U.S. has no political appetite to take on this issue right now.
In that same interview, however, Cardinal Brown also said that, perhaps, the spike in migration from Canada creates an incentive for the U.S. to talk.
“That may be a basis for a conversation,” said Brown, an immigration analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think-tank.
WATCH | What’s driving migrants toward Canada:
What’s driving migrants to make a dangerous run for Canada
Warning: Video contains graphic images | Violence and oppression in Central and South America are driving a surge of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border and for many the new target in Canada. CBC’s Paul Hunter travels to Juarez, Mexico to find out more about what’s driving them to make the dangerous run north.
The U.S. hasn’t paid much attention to the northern border since the post-9/11 era, when concerns about terrorist movement dominated the Canada-U.S. conversation and led to security measures that slowed travel.
Canadian officials and diplomats mostly like it that way.
Then again, this gives Canada a new argument. When Biden heads to Ottawa, his Canadian counterparts might make a new pitch for a migration deal, arguing that it would help both countries control irregular entry, as they tell the president: Let’s make a deal.