Border plan straight from the theater of the absurd

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WASHINGTON – If you like the Theater of the Absurd, the latest effort to control the United States’ borders by the Department of Homeland Security rivals the best offerings by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.

Under a U.S. law that will kick in Jan. 1, 2008, millions of Canadians and Americans will have to produce biometric proof of identity when visiting across the border and wishing to return home without a possible stopover in a detention hellhole.

Unless details of your retina are encoded in your passport or yet-to-be-developed identity card, you won’t be able to cross what has been the longest undefended border in human history.

The only Americans who seem to know about the demise of this fine tradition, historic boast and an example to the world live in northern-tier states stretching from Washington to Maine. The rest of the country seems oblivious.

The Theater of the Absurd would play it that way, wouldn’t it? After all, its essential truth is that nothing matters – not even absurdity.

Peter MacKay, Canada’s foreign minister, was in Washington earlier this month to confer with Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state. She told him the new border law will have to be followed.

A few days later, Stockwell Day, the Canadian minister of public safety, met with Michael Chertoff, the U.S. secretary of homeland security, and got the same message. The law is the law – unless, maybe, with luck, Congress will bend a little.

At the end of March, Prime Minister Stephen Harper clearly made no progress when he and President Bush took up the border issue at the NAFTA summit in Cancun, Mexico.

Nor have Canadian diplomats been idle. Ambassador Michael Wilson is looking for allies to help press Canada’s case, explaining the threat the program regulations pose for the tourism and convention business of both countries.

Good luck. I don’t know what could have been done to prevent this absurd situation. Americans have long griped about Canada as a haven for terrorists, dope smugglers and illegal immigrants.

When terrorists struck on that horrible Sept. 11, 2001, reports appeared in The New York Times that some of them had come in via Canada. Not a word was true. It didn’t happen. And it made no difference. The lie lives. Politicians, legislators, government agencies act as if it had – the more so at election time.

This coming November, the future of Republican control of Congress is at stake and the sky is the limit on political blather.

There’s no telling who’ll say what, but this much is certain: border security is a red hot issue and, out of the spotlight, Canada is getting burned. That this is happening while the United States no longer has a southern border in any real sense is, well, an absurdity.

On its southern border, U.S. laws have gone out the window – regardless of what Secretary Rice told Foreign Minister MacKay, and Secretary Chertoff repeated to Safety Minister Day.

Tens of thousands of people swarm over from Mexico every day without so much as by your leave – and not all of them are Mexicans, either. Nobody in Washington knows who they are. Nobody checks their biometric documents. They have no documents. They are “undocumented immigrants,” in Washington’s official parlance.

Most Washington politicians, though, say “we must do something.” Some want to build a wall. Some offer more electronic guardians. Some would let it rip. But all know it’s mainly hot air.

The only real targets are millions of Canadians and Americans who cross the border as tourists, workers or relatives visiting relatives.

The amount of money spent by Canadians in just upstate New York and Florida is staggering – equaled only by the amount Americans spend in hot-ticket places such as Niagara Falls, Toronto; Quebec City and the Canadian Rockies. All of that daily camaraderie and commerce currently takes place without any eyeball scanning.

That will change drastically when a new curtain of security clanks down on New Year’s Day 2008. If that’s not the Theater of the Absurd, please, somebody tell me what it is.

Bogdan Kipling is a veteran Washington columnist for the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

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