The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has apprehended more suspected terrorists on the nation’s northern border than along its southern counterpart, CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin said Tuesday.
“In terms of the terrorist threat, it’s commonly accepted that the more significant threat” comes from the U.S.-Canada border, Bersin told a hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security.
Bersin attributed the situation, in part, to the fact that the U.S. and Canada do not share information about people placed on their respective “no-fly” lists. As a result, individuals deemed a threat who fly into one country may then cross the land border into the other.
“Because of the fact that we do not share no-fly [list] information and the Canadians will not, we are more than we would like confronted with the fact where a [person designated as a] no-fly has entered Canada and then is arrested coming across one of our bridges into the United States,” he said.
As it screens air travelers, the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration places individuals who are considered a threat to aviation on a no-fly list, which is a subset of the terrorist watchlist.
Bersin’s comments came after the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, asked him about the relative numbers of people apprehended along the northern and southern borders.
He responded that the detentions and arrests along the border with Canada were “a small, small fraction” when compared to the number apprehended in the south. "That doesn’t mean that we don’t face significant threats” along the northern border, he added.
CBP figures for fiscal year 2010 indicate that 447,731 illegal crossers were apprehended along the southwest border and 7,431 along the U.S.-Canada border.
Cornyn noted during the hearing that the FY2010 arrests along the southwest border included 59,000 individuals from countries other than Mexico. Last March, the senator told a conference on border security that of those 59,000 people, 663 came “from special-interest countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen and from countries that have been designated by the U.S. Department of State as state-sponsors of terror – Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Sudan.”
Speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s hearing, Bersin said his agency has recorded more cases of people with suspected terrorist backgrounds or links to terror organizations entering the U.S. from Canada than from Mexico.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re not looking for it on both borders, south and north,” he said.
Bersin said people who are on the no-fly list for a variety of reasons may enter Canada, “because they’re entitled under Canadian laws to do so, and then they attempt to cross into the United States” by way of bridge or tunnel border crossings.
“CBP officers have stopped that,” he said, but without quantifying the number of suspected terrorist arrests by CBP.
Bersin told reporters Canadian authorities do not act on no-fly list information provided by the U.S. government if it affects a Canadian citizen. This, he said, creates a security gap.
“Under the Canadian charter – as that’s been interpreted to me – they do not believe that they can accept information that would affect Canadian citizens, and therefore don’t.
“But we’re constantly working with our Canadian partners to develop mechanism and modes of information exchange [so] that, as far as legally possible, we can close that gap. And we’ll continue to do that.”
‘Known presence of terrorist organizations’
A December 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that “the risk of terrorist activity is high” on the northern border.
The report noted that according to the assessment of the U.S. Border Patrol – a component of CBP – only 32 of the nearly 4,000 miles of the U.S.-Canada border “had reached an acceptable level of control” in 2010.
The rest, it said, were “defined as vulnerable to exploitation due to issues related to accessibility and resource availability and, as a result, there is a high degree of reliance on law enforcement support from outside the border zone.”
The GAO report also noted that in the Blaine sector – the Border Patrol sector that includes Oregon and the western half of Washington state – there is a “known presence of terrorist organizations” near the border.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton, who testified alongside Bersin Tuesday, told the Senate panel that his agency has about 1,500 enforcement and removal officers on the northern border – the “largest law-enforcement footprint of any U.S agency in Canada.”
“We removed about 47,000 illegal aliens from the northern border region, roughly half of whom are criminal offenders,” added Morton.
The issue of drug-smuggling over the northern border also came up during the hearing. In his prepared remarks, Bersin said that CBP interdicts around 40,000 pounds of illegal drugs each year at and between points of entry along the northern border.
He told lawmakers that the U.S. government will deploy military-grade radars along the northern border in November 2011 in an effort to thwart low-flying aircraft used to smuggle narcotics into the U.S.