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Northern Border Fence Idea Raises Eyebrows Along Frontier

A sign marking the unfenced border to Point Roberts. Photo by Tom Banse
A sign marking the unfenced border to Point Roberts. Photo by Tom Banse
A ditch and short obelisks are all that mark the U.S.-Canada border in northern Whatcom County, WA. Photo by Tom Banse
A ditch and short obelisks are all that mark the U.S.-Canada border in northern Whatcom County, WA. Photo by Tom Banse

BLAINE, Wash. - A planning document describing possible security enhancements along our northern border is raising eyebrows both in Canada and the U.S. Most notably, the study for the Department of Homeland Security raises the idea of fencing short portions of the northern border. Some Canadians are offended by the idea. The U.S. agency is now trying to contain the negative reaction. Correspondent Tom Banse has details from Blaine, Washington.

I'm standing now right on the U.S.-Canada border, having approached from the U.S. side across a playground. Just across the line is a pretty much unremarkable neighborhood in Canada.

There's no fence. Just this shallow ditch and some warning signs saying you're leaving the United States. I can literally just jump across. Now I'm in Canada. Jump right back. And we're back in the U.S.

"Don't Fence Me In" is the song they're singing across the border this month. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency instigated the lament with an environmental review.

The planning document contemplates short stretches of fencing on the northern border. Also up for discussion are upgrades to patrol roads, short-range radar, more cameras or aerial drones, among other things.

But it was the fence that caught the locals' attention the most says British Columbia legislator Barry Penner.

"It is a disappointing development to think that after all these many years of being good neighbors, one side or the other might think it necessary now to build a fence," he says.

Penner represents a district along the Canada-U.S. border outside Vancouver. In response to voices like this, the U.S. border agency is trying to tamp down fears.

Customs and Border Protection planner Don Beckham says the agency has no intention of building a fence on the northern border that resembles the steel curtain along parts of the Mexican border.

"We do discuss fencing, but it would be at very specific locations like fencing on either side of a small, remote port of entry to keep people literally from driving through a field to avoid the port of entry," he explains.

Beckham says it would be totally unrealistic to deter illegal border crossings by fencing the entire 4,000 mile long border with Canada. His team favors a flexible approach that uses a broad array of possible security measures.

"We are looking forward five to seven years, understanding that the security threat is not static," Beckham says. "It is constantly changing and Customs and Border Protection needs to change the responses to meet the threat."

Beckham says his agency is listening to public comments and won't make any decisions until at least next year.

Bellingham resident Caroline Correa came to a public meeting with concerns about aerial drone surveillance and how border fencing might block wildlife migration.

"But it seemed to be minimal if I'm hearing correctly," she says. "That's a comfort level and we would have to make certain that they hold their word."

Vancouver Sun newspaper columnist Vaughn Palmer finds it ironic the discussion of fencing came up just as the Canadian government is deep in talks with the Obama Administration about a joint North American security pact. The idea there is to tighten controls around the perimeter of our two countries and thereby enable freer mobility across the shared border.

"Since 9/11, that cross-border relationship has changed in any number of ways," Palmer says. "We're going to be struggling to reconcile the security concerns in the United States with the trade and tourism interests between the two countries."


The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is holding a public hearing Thursday in Boundary County, Idaho to gather more reactions to its northern border study document. That gathering is happening from 7 to 9 p.m. at the event center in Naples, Idaho.

Comments can also be submitted by email:

On the Web:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection - Northern Border study:

Opinion column by J.L Granatstein in the Ottawa Citizen:

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.