(March 2002) The Sept. 11 terrorist assaults prompted calls to address security issues on the United States’ northern border. Canada’s generous admissions policies combined with the relative openness of the U.S.-Canadian border have led to demands for the establishment of a North American security perimeter. Although much depends on future events, there are limits to the likely scope of harmonization.

Unlike in Europe, full harmonization of U.S. and Canadian policies is not necessitated by broader political and economic objectives. The European Union required significant integration to achieve the free movement of goods, services, and people within member states. Without such an overriding imperative, the dissonance between different admissions criteria and procedures, and underlying traditions and values, is likely to be amplified.

The differences are many. For example, the United States and Canada provide visa waivers to nationals of different countries and employ different criteria for the admission of immigrants. In terms of immigrant admissions, Canada emphasizes needed skills while the United States favors family unification. With respect to asylum seekers, the two countries use different procedures for adjudicating claims, have different standards for nonreturn, and diverge on the use of detention. Deportation policies also vary.

Border Crossings, October 2001

While protecting against a terrorist threat is important to the United States and Canada, so too are the ease and efficiency with which Americans and Canadians travel back and forth across their common border.


Source: Statistics Canada, The Daily (Dec. 18, 2001).

The first step toward a bilateral harmonization of policies is the Joint Statement on Cooperation on Border Security and Regional Migration Issues, signed Dec. 3, 2001, which calls for the coordination of certain visa and asylum requirements. These include:

  • Jointly assessing incoming passengers to identify those requiring closer examination upon arrival;
  • Increasing the number of Canadian and U.S. immigration control officers abroad to screen individuals before they reach our ports of entry;
  • Developing common biometric identifiers in passports and in residence and border-crossing cards to reduce travel document fraud and allow officials to identify passengers who require closer scrutiny while letting precertified travelers pass quickly; and
  • Enhancing coordination among law enforcement and other agencies addressing security threats.

A U.S.-Canada Smart Border Declaration issued later in December began to implement some of these measures, but the United States and Canada must aim for more than a static agreement and develop an effective implementing and dispute resolution process.

One major feature of the U.S.-Canada agreement concerns reviewing the visa-waiver programs in the respective countries. These arrangements permit nationals of designated countries to travel and enter without a visa. Visitor visa requirements are blunt policy instruments that often draw concerns from business interests worried that delays in transferring or hiring executives, managers, and professionals will diminish the bottom line. Joan Atkinson, assistant deputy minister for policy and program development with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, related in December 2001 the recent imposition of a visa requirement on Hungarian nationals, prompted by a stream of Hungarian Roma who had come to Canada claiming refugee status. The visa requirement sweeps more broadly, however, and Canadian officials were busy assuring businesses that Hungarian business visitors’ travel would be facilitated through devices such as five-year multiple-entry visas. The United States also has a visa requirement for Hungarian nationals.

The U.S.-Canada agreement also addresses asylum policy, particularly by authorizing a safe-third-country provision that would permit refugee claimants to be returned to the country of first arrival. This provision is likely to prompt the greatest resistance from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that uphold refugee rights, according to Atkinson, who said that several Canadian NGOs had already expressed concerns. Indeed, the impact could be substantial. Atkinson said that 37 percent of refugee claimants in Canada (some 12,000 to 13,000) come through the United States and could be returned to the United States under a safe-third-country rule. Under such a provision, the details of the asylum systems of each country would be scrutinized for divergences in matters such as standards of proof, special criteria for Chinese claimants, and detention practices. Overall implications could be far-reaching. Ultimately, these arrangements could herald broader asylum-sharing arrangements between North American and European Union member states, which are embarked on the quest for a common immigration and asylum policy. Canada has indicated an interest in the past in joining such an arrangement.

Even the limited forms of harmonized immigration and refugee policies that are foreseeable are not likely to eliminate future acts of terrorism, although they may in some instances make it easier to investigate and apprehend terrorists after the fact. Astutely targeted law enforcement activities will be far more decisive in fighting the terrorist threat.

Arthur C. Helton is a senior fellow and Eliana Jacobs is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

For More Information

For additional publications on U.S.-Canadian border security, visit the website of the Council on Foreign Relations: www.cfr.org