With Focus On Mexican Border, Greater Security Threat Could Be From Canada
Along the northern border where Vermont, New Hampshire and New York meet Canada, U.S. Customs and Border Protection pilot Gerhardt Perry routinely flies an infrared camera-equipped Cessna 206 on patrols that can last up to four hours.
Perry is an Air Interdiction Agent. He also gets calls in the middle of the night to take an A-Star helicopter into the air on a rescue mission or to help agents on the ground track people suspected of illegal entry into the U.S. When he explains his job to others, he says he often has to clarify which border he's talking about.
"When you ask the average American citizen about the border, 'what do you know about the border?' they immediately go to the southern border,” said Perry. “They don't even think about the border with Canada."
Competing versions of what constitutes a safe southern border with Mexico are at the center of a debate echoing from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. — and especially in the four border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. And citing national security, President Donald Trump recently signed an order to deploy the National Guard on the southern border, adding to an already substantial presence of personnel and technology there.
However, some argue that when it comes to the potential for terrorism, the security focus should be applied equally to the Canada-U.S. border.
There are about 16,000 border patrol agents on the Mexican border. There are about 2,000 agents on the Canadian border, which is twice as long as Mexico's.
Before his northern deployment, Perry flew missions in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas — a mix of river, bramble and thicket and border towns. He has also flown the northern border that separates Montana from the Canadian province of Alberta.
Perry knows both borders well and says he believes preventing terrorism also means looking north to Canada. While U.S. law enforcement is already doing that, Perry wishes more of the general public knew.
"You have large population centers within a hundred miles of the border,” Perry said. “You have Toronto, you have Montreal. If you want to address terrorism, the northern border is the place to look."
Perry was in the air in 2014 when word came about acts of terrorism that changed Canada, initiating a review of terrorism threats in Canada and security on its border. First a soldier was killed in a deliberate hit-and-run near Montreal. The same week, an ISIS supporter killed a soldier at Canada’s War Memorial. He then entered Canada’s Parliament, the seat of its federal government, where he was shot dead.
In his cockpit, Perry pulled in the signal from an AM radio.
"As I'm flying, I'm looking over, and this occurred just miles from where we were! I was horrified,” Perry said. “I was like, ‘good grief, in Canada?’"
Today there are about 2,000 border patrol agents on the Canadian border compared to about 16,000 agents on the Mexican border. Canada's border stretches twice as long as Mexico's. And the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, Christina Nolan, says she's concerned about the northern border.
"One of the first things that comes to mind is what we know to be certain radicalized populations in Montreal and other parts of Canada,” Nolan said in her Burlington office.
She recently met with Canadian prosecutors, "and they indicated to me they had a healthy docket of cases pending that involved homegrown radicals who were attempting to travel overseas and fight for ISIS," Nolan said.
In response, Canada has made pre-emptive arrests. In the past three years, at least 10 students have been arrested before leaving Montreal allegedly to join ISIS. An alleged ISIS cell was uncovered in Ottawa in 2015, and in another case, a Kuwaiti-born Canadian has pleaded guilty to plotting attacks for ISIS in New York.
"I do worry that our lightly manned northern border could be an avenue for them to travel to the U.S.,” Nolan said.
In November 2017, Canada's Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale revealed the number of people who have come back from places such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
"The number of returnees known to the government of Canada is in the order of 60,” Goodale told Canada’s House of Commons.
Canada's intelligence service also says it knows of 180 people with ties to Canada who are engaged in terrorist activity abroad, with approximately half believed to be in Syria or Iraq.
Border security specialist Howard Campbell at the University of Texas at El Paso — across the Rio Grande from Juárez, Mexico — is the author of Drug War Zone, a book that looks at trafficking in both cities. He thinks the U.S. overemphasizes security on the southern border and not enough on the northern border.
“If Homeland Security is really concerned with security, and the biggest security threat is terrorism,” Campbell said, “we should be more worried about the Canadian border than the Mexican border.”
President Trump's policies have focused on the southern border. He'sstated that drugs and undocumented migrants are “pouring in” to the country. And he has made that assertion even as the administration’s latest statistics for April showed illegal border crossings held fairly steady last month and that illegal crossings are in line with historical trends.
Campbell believes that the people typically arrested for illegally crossing in from Mexico typically pose no threat of terrorism.
“Because Mexican and Central American migrant workers are not a terrorist threat to the United States,” he said.
Canada’s 2018 budget includes $173 million for greater security along the U.S. border, and intelligence sharing between the U.S. and Canada is robust, with a longer tradition of mutual trust than between the U.S. and Mexico. And that could mean U.S. law enforcement's presence on the northern border might continue to be dwarfed by what Washington has committed to the south.