Canada-US border securitization: implications for binational cooperation.

AuthorAlper, Donald K.


State borders are critical junctions where oppositional dynamics of exclusion and inclusion are played out. In the last eight years, transnational congruence inherent in economic globalization has clashed directly with the assertion of territorial security by the United States. Borders, harkening to the geopolitics of past centuries, are once again asserted to be sites of vulnerability and lines for maintaining control over people and territory. Border enforcement emphasizes controlling movement of undesirable people and goods, but it is also about ensuring domestic stability and countering challenges to the status quo. Given a history in which immigrants are as likely seen to be threats to national security as welcomed sources of assets and skills, border concerns and border control processes invariably breed anxiety about internal social and cultural boundaries as well. By differentiating the "other," borders and their supporting narratives reinforce them. In addition to immigrants and refugees, people considered sufficiently different from prevailing norms are also affected.

While national border policies affect the nation as a whole, border regions are disproportionately impacted. Border regions are the locus of cross border social and economic relations, the first point of contact and interaction between nations. As such, they serve to mediate perceptions of, as well as actual, relationships between countries. Their functions as social and economic conduits are constrained as border controls are intensified. Borders, under these conditions, serve to weaken relationships, and impede cross-border cooperation in such areas as commerce, environment, and public health. But the costs of border restrictions are far more than material and environmental alone. They involve social and psychological costs of growing suspicions, reluctance to engage, or slowed momentum for investing further in well established transboundary networks for working in common to solve complex problems.

Focusing particularly on the Canada-U.S. border, this paper examines the impact of tighter border policies and enforcement processes on cross-border interaction, as well as their implications for binational and multinational security challenges. Among the questions that will guide the discussion are: What impact do exclusionary border policies have on host societies? How do border policies impact conceptions of borderlands and binational cooperation? What problems are inherent in the often heralded trend toward smarter borders?


Borders simultaneously separate and unite, repel and compel. The inconsonant divisive and integrative pairings and oppositions inherent in borders imply a continuum of cross-border interaction, such as that proposed by Martinez (1994) as spanning 1) alienation (with hostility and closure); 2) coexistence (with limited binational interchange); 3) interdependence (with general stability and friendly cooperation); and 4) integration (with strong stability, merged economies, and unrestricted movement). As the twentieth century ended, ever greater economic integration had come to characterize the Canadian-U.S. border, while interdependence deepened in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands despite persisting asymmetries.

The sharp shift in both rhetoric and practice since 2001 makes the optimistic discourse about deepening economic and intercultural integration seem distant in time. The control function of borders has been firmly asserted in the wake of the events of September 11. The comprehensive security-oriented policies embodied in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, characterized by surveillance, exclusion, and retrenchment, increasingly appear as a panoptic system, one that takes everything into single view and in which the reach of power is totalizing (Payan 2006). Heralded as an era of "smart borders," growing socio-technological sophistication is seen as necessary to filter "good flows" from "bad flows." Clearance requirements, biometrics, profiling, and more overt and even coercive searches are coupled with the enlistment of a broad array of agencies, community groups and media partners in enforcing new and more control-oriented border management technologies.

"Smart," panoptic borders do more than simply regulate and control people and territory. They also impede well established transboundary networks and inhibit the emergence of new relationships. Intended as mechanisms of control and monitoring, such borders entail trade, environmental, social and psychological costs. These costs include higher expense for goods and services, negative impacts on cross border travel, slowed momentum for working in common, division of cross-border communities, and growing suspicions and reluctance to engage. Greater border restrictions only exacerbate these costs and generally weaken borderland societies within North American border regions.

This paper will explore the impact of increased border securitization and supporting narratives, with emphasis on border regions. As the locus of cross border social and economic relations, border regions are the first point of contact and interaction between nations. They are also the sites of exclusion, where those outside are as likely to be seen as a threat to security as they are welcomed as neighbors for their skills and potentials. Border regions are also the best place to trace out the implications of intensified state security policies. We conclude by suggesting that border security be re-conceptualized as a process that needs to build on the longstanding social and economic interactions that define border regions, and to actively draw the international players into border activities, rather than alienating them as potential threats to an increasingly gated nation state. We question the trend toward "smarter borders" as the technocratic solution to balancing facilitation with control.


For U.S. politicians and the public alike, border concerns have until recently been almost exclusively about Mexico. The U.S.-Mexico border has drawn enormous attention in the media, in literature, and in politics--indeed it has long been the only border in North America meriting much consideration. By contrast, the U.S.-Canada border has figured prominently in the psyche of Canadians, while in the U.S. few people give it much thought. The vastly different histories and physical and cultural differences in the two borders (Loucky and Alper 2008) add particular complexity to any attempt by the United States to devise a consistent and comprehensive border approach.

In contrast to the climate today, the U.S.-Mexican border historically has not been seen as overly problematic, except during economic downturns. The isolation, harsh environment, and regional distinctiveness of la frontera resulted in longstanding social interactions across the border, with residents adapting modes of exchange and means of communication to facilitate mutual advantage across differences of culture, language, and socio-economic levels. Most of the time, Mexican workers were welcomed when needed, while providing a convenient scapegoat when domestic woes worsened. "Mexican scares" occurred periodically, beginning with a fanning of nationalism and nativism through claims of manifest destiny in mid-nineteenth century Texas (Nevins 2002). More recently, a significant number of unauthorized immigrants, whose presence the media and many anti-immigrant groups spotlight, and an upsurge of drug/gang violence in the near-border regions of northern Mexico, have led many in the United States to increasingly worry about immigration and drug violence as both a "Mexican" and a "porous border" problem.

In light of America's unfortunate history deprecating those different and darker, the sudden emergence of external danger in 2001 made almost inevitable the conflation of further potential threats with unwanted border crossings in the south. Former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge reinforced this linkage by stating that "undocumented aliens are as dangerous to the United States as terrorists, drug dealers or weapons of mass destruction" (Chanona 2006, 130). Dual U.S. concerns about terrorism and immigration figured prominently in the North American Agreement on Security and Prosperity, promulgated to integrate security operations of the three countries comprising the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), along with enactment of the Merida Initiative that allows U.S. advisors to operate within Mexico.

Rhetoric and related policy have continued to be ramped-up since. By 2009, drug violence and corruption were added to uncontrolled immigration and entry of dangerous enemies as security threats that could spill across the border from Mexico (The Jcfnt Operating Environment 2008). Before turning responsibilities over to President Barack Obama, the outgoing George W. Bush Administration designated Mexico as the United States' southern security perimeter through the creation of a North Command. There was even a suggestion of the need of an Iraq-like "surge" in operations on the border to contend with what some government officials and media observers were beginning to call a "failed state." All the while, an expensive border security apparatus (that may at best encompass less than half the 4000-mile border) nonetheless proceeds to rise as a symbolic though largely ineffective testament to questionable premises and practice.

To the north, by contrast, issues in Canada -U.S. relations historically have only infrequently involved the border. For at least a century, bilateral relations have been about policy conflicts involving fish stocks, softwood lumber, mail order pharmaceuticals, acid rain, "lenient" drug policies, and differences in foreign policy (like relations with Cuba and the war in Iraq). Except in connection with boundary...

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