E.g., 04/21/2024
E.g., 04/21/2024
Security at U.S. Borders: A Move Away from Unilateralism?

Security at U.S. Borders: A Move Away from Unilateralism?

Canada and Mexico are the United States' largest trading partners, and there are approximately 500 million crossings at U.S. borders annually. Yet border management traditionally has not been at the forefront of policy discussions by either the U.S. government or the American public. September 11 changed that dramatically.

Among the many U.S. policy responses to the attacks were the signing of the United States-Canada Smart Border Declaration and the United States-Mexico Border Partnership Agreement in December 2001 and March 2002, respectively. This article briefly reviews some of the successes and frustrations of border management in the last 18 months, particularly in light of these new "Smart Border" accords, which appear to signal a departure from earlier, more unilateral approaches to border issues.

Impetus for Action

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 forced politicians at the highest levels to reassess U.S. border management strategies. While the initial reaction was to tighten borders to such a high degree that they were rendered nearly impassable, despite technically remaining open, reality soon intervened. Lines at border crossing points stretched for miles, lasted for hours, disrupted the regular flows of students and workers, and cut the supply lines of cross-border manufacturing networks. It soon became clear that existing systems could not satisfy post-September 11 demands for heightened security and facilitation of legitimate travel.

Faced with this gridlock, U.S. policymakers realized that rapid changes were needed to enhance physical security while still easing the flow of legal traffic. One approach was to achieve additional security through cooperative action with Canada and Mexico, rather than through unilateral measures.

Canada and Mexico were willing partners in this exercise, particularly given that September 11 and its aftermath affected their societies, economies, and ways of life as well. The U.S. has over $400 billion in two-way trade with Canada each year, and nearly $300 billion with Mexico, representing deeply entwined economies. The countries also share strong social and cultural ties, and each has its own interests in a secure border, interests that go well beyond mollifying the United States.

This convergence of interests was demonstrated by the numerous domestic changes made in all three countries following the attacks, including new anti-terrorism laws, additional funding for inspectors, improved screening of visa applicants and refugee claimants, upgraded border technology, and expanded monitoring of financial movements. At a minimum, neither Mexico nor Canada wanted to be the victim of a future terrorist attack, nor be the country of transit for a would-be terrorist.

Fortunately for all three countries, serious bilateral discussions on border issues long pre-dated September 11, as did close working-level relationships among government bureaucrats. Thus the enhanced cooperation, quick actions, and inter-governmental information-sharing required after September 11 were built on a strong foundation, accelerating programs and ideas which otherwise might have languished.


The Smart Border agreements signed in 2001 and 2002 covered the secure flow of people and goods, as well as secure physical infrastructure at ports-of-entry. The Canadian agreement also incorporated coordination and information-sharing in the enforcement of these objectives. A brief evaluation of key accomplishments in these areas may be useful for future progress.

The primary success has been the U.S. government's sheer willingness to think differently about the border and how it is managed, a willingness previously constrained by bureaucratic inertia and a lack of understanding about the limits of the previous system. The United States, engaging cooperatively with its NAFTA partners, began reconceptualizing its approach toward borders, moving toward a more systematic and less haphazard regime. Examples include engaging in border-related functions away from the border, alternative inspection programs such as pre-clearance of people and of goods, and an increased reliance on intelligence and information-sharing with other governments. This "smarter" approach significantly increases the likelihood of catching potential terrorists or other criminals by implementing layered security, where the inspection at the US port-of-entry is only the final check.

Success also is reflected in this enhanced focus on information and intelligence. The advance sharing of airline passenger manifests prior to landing, in combination with increasingly integrated intelligence information, gives an advantage to law enforcement officials, as they can target their limited resources toward higher-risk passengers. Similarly, government officials work jointly in units overseas, analyzing passenger manifests to determine potential risks prior to departure. The provision of advance information is even more sophisticated with regard to cargo, through the FAST (Free and Secure Trade) program. It has also become more multilateral, with U.S. customs officers deployed overseas at major ports of departure under the Container Security Initiative.

Many of these gains have been achieved with the expanded use of technology, which while insufficient on its own and only as good as the inputted information, has proven a useful complement to programmatic innovations. Efforts have shifted toward technology-based systems such as dedicated travel lanes for low-risk travelers (the jointly operated NEXUS along the Canadian border and the U.S. government's SENTRI program along the Mexican border). Other technology-related examples include compatible databases, interoperable technology, shared lookout lists, common biometric standards, intelligent transportation systems, and joint efforts against document fraud.

The cooperation hinted at above is yet another major achievement. Along both the Mexican and Canadian borders, trust has grown and levels of cooperation have deepened. Although a great deal of the most effective work takes place below the radar screen, depriving politicians of border photo ops, measures such as shared intelligence information, Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs), information exchange on visa policies, joint training exercises, and coordinated efforts regarding third-country nationals may yield the greatest impacts. Some progress has been made, albeit slowly, with regard to infrastructure improvements, but far greater investments will need to occur in this arena. Principally, the Smart Border approach has worked because it is pragmatic and focused, coalescing around issues in the self-interest of each country.


One key frustration for government officials and local stakeholders alike has been the lack of visible progress at ports-of-entry, such as unpredictable delays when crossing, insufficient staffing levels, inability to access dedicated lanes for regular crossers, and continued pollution. The high and growing levels of traffic at both the Mexican and Canadian borders, while representing a major success for North America's economies and societies, continue to pose a challenge not only for inadequate infrastructure but also for homeland security itself. Inspectors are tasked with the nearly impossible mission of perfection as they determine admissibility at the border, with their success highly dependent on complete and timely access to all available intelligence information. Businesses, students, family members, and employees want and need reliability and predictability at border crossings, and while the waits have shortened considerably from the immediate post-September 11 aftermath, they remain inconsistent even for those who cross the border at the same time each day.

Without prompt and intense attention, these challenges at ports-of-entry will be exacerbated by provisions that over the next few years will require documentation of both entries and exits for foreign visitors to the United States. Moreover, it has proven more difficult to facilitate the movement of people than the movement of cargo. There are also concerns regarding growing pollution at the borders, increased dependence on smugglers for illegal crossings, and the remote stretches between ports-of-entry whose vast expanse makes them difficult to monitor.

Another major challenge has been institutional, as some U.S. government agencies remain reluctant to share all the necessary information in a timely manner with their colleagues in other agencies (much less those in other governments). Coordination between U.S. agencies and their Canadian and Mexican counterparts in this endeavor will be most successful only if internal U.S. systems function smoothly. However, the new Department of Homeland Security is in the early stages of merging employees, personnel systems, and cultures from several federal agencies. Chains of command and accountability remain murky, with new agencies continuing to scramble for turf. This is making cooperation with Canadian and Mexican officials, as well as outside stakeholders, more complicated than necessary.

Finally, engaging in two separate bilateral processes poses challenges for the U.S. in terms of inviting comparisons. Each agreement, however, had its own set of expectations and thus must be judged on its own merits. The countries began at different starting points, with different histories, challenges, resources, and levels of institutional capacity. Both agreements are works in progress, with deep cooperation and specific goals having been achieved, but much more can be accomplished. Doing so, however, will involve overcoming obstacles in all three countries, including Canadian privacy laws that restrict information sharing, insufficient Mexican financial and personnel resources, and easily distracted American political attention and funding.

Next Steps

The events of September 11 challenged U.S. society in many ways. Some of the steps taken by the U.S., Mexican, and Canadian governments in response (such as stationing officers at major ports in each other's countries) were unimaginable previously. Thus, a variety of stakeholders, government officials, and community members alike should be engaged on these issues to further stimulate the creative thinking and continue the progress. Moreover, each country has a responsibility to educate its public that increased security and increased facilitation can be mutually reinforcing and best achieved not through unilateral efforts or finger-pointing, but through strategic cooperation. Although border policy is only one component of the war against terrorism, the U.S. can ill afford to squander the opportunity to work jointly with its two neighbors on these issues of such great mutual importance.

Ultimately, in order to reach the true partnership most likely to achieve the desired security goals, the U.S. will have to expend considerable effort addressing issues of importance to its Canadian and Mexican neighbors (including facilitation of movement, outdated infrastructure, border safety, and progress on a broader migration agenda), in addition to its own security priorities. This might involve a two-track approach that incorporates short-term needs as well as a long-term vision of North American borders. Only by doing so may each country reach the common goal of a more secure North America with mature borders.

Click here for a detailed analysis of the Smart Border accords.