Canada’s new Liberal prime minister plans to “fast track” the acceptance of thousands of Syrian refugees over the next few weeks and that has some in Congress worried about security at the mostly unpatrolled northern border.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office Nov. 4 promising to take in no less than 25,000 Syrian refugees by Dec. 31 and up to 50,000 by the end of 2016. The government fell far short of its goal, admitting only 6,000 as of Dec. 31 and about 15,000 to date, but Trudeau’s administration now says it will meet the 25,000 goal by March 1.
Canada and the U.S. share the world’s largest undefended international border. It stretches more than 5,520 miles across 13 states over land and water. The International Peace Garden was opened in 1932 in Bottineau, North Dakota, and the famed Peace Arch in Blaine, Washington, was dedicated in 1921 to celebrate the fact that the two countries share not only miles of border but values based on freedom and democracy.
But that was before the Syrian civil war, the Arab Spring, and mass migration of millions of Muslims out of the Middle East and Africa into Europe and North America.
Congress spent much of last year debating the merits of President Obama’s plans to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees. FBI Director James Comey testified on Oct. 1 saying it was virtually impossible to screen the vast majority of people who show up at United Nations’ refugee camps claiming to be Syrians. But in the end House Speaker Paul Ryan and the Republican Congress decided to fully fund the president’s expanded refugee program.
Now the Senate Homeland Security Committee is asking questions about Canada’s even more aggressive Syrian refugee program and how it might affect U.S. security.
The committee held a hearing Wednesday where it was revealed that the northern border is severely undermanned.
Only 300 U.S. border agents are working at the Canadian border at any given time, said Dean Mandel, a U.S. Border Patrol agent assigned to the Buffalo sector.
That compares to more than 2,000 agents patrolling the southern border with Mexico at any moment in time.
“We have one agent for every linear mile on our southern border and one for every 13.5 miles on our northern border,” Mandel said, adding that the northern border also has far fewer cameras and other technological infrastructure in place.
Montana alone has a 550-mile border with Canada, much of it rugged terrain and not monitored. Michigan, New York and Ohio have borders that include vast expanses of water.
And now Trudeau’s government plans to expedite the process of screening and integrating tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
“There is a significant controversy over Canada’s plan to accept 25,000 refugees from Syria. Can we meet this risk? Canada is a diverse nation and has a Muslim population three times our own on a per capita basis,” said Mandel, who was testifying on behalf of the National Border Patrol Council.
Visa waiver program presents risk
Mandel said the visa waiver agreement the U.S. has with Canada presents a special risk.
“The visa waiver system is a huge security gap, because it is based on the assumption that if you are from Canada, a friendly country, you are no security risk,” he said.
“And database background checks are only as good as the database itself, which we found out in the San Bernardino (terrorist) case,” he said, referring to the fact that jihadist Tashfeen Malik entered the U.S. by passing through a visa background check.
“Many terrorists are simply not in the database,” he said. “We have failed to properly invest in our northern border. So we are gambling …relying so heavily on a foreign government concerns me. The Paris attack was launched right under the noses of Belgium security.”
Mandel advised the Senate that manpower be beefed up on the northern border.
“The problem here is we simply don’t have enough manpower. We have more agents in El Paso (Texas) than on the entire northern border,” he said. “We have an almost complete reliance on Canadian law enforcement for our security.”
David Harris, director of INSIGNIS Strategic Research, an international intelligence firm based in Ottawa, also expressed grave concern about the infusion of so many Syrian refugees into Canada over such a short period of time.
Sending 25,000 Syrians to Canada would be the equivalent of sending 225,000 to the United States, he said.
“FBI Director James Comey has highlighted the difficulties the U.S. would have screening just 10,000 refugees,” Harris told the committee. “How likely is it that Canada could adequately screen two and a half times that many in just three months?”
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