Magazine Feature

Across the Border

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On a crisp winter morning, at the touch of sunrise, I finished my third cup of coffee and ordered an Uber to the Moscow airport. I waited outside in the snowfall with my well-worn suitcase. The sun drooled over the black sky. The car did not arrive. Instead, I saw a young man in a sports jacket running toward me, grabbing my suitcase, and apologizing. I followed him, my instincts still in deep slumber.

I felt a shiver as I climbed into the warmth of the car and saw another man in the passenger’s seat. We had company. The driver apologized for his friend’s presence. The warming sky worried me more than the strange situation with a dangerous potential. I only hurried to shut the door.

The men were friendly, talking amongst themselves until they asked me a question that I have learned to lie to – “Where are you flying?”

Again my intuition failed me. “The US,” I said, pausing the podcast running through my headphones, as it was just getting interesting.

The men interrupted one another with their questions about America. They complained about their luck in Russia, from the country’s highways to the educational system. One of them had an engineering degree, but no career. The other just graduated university and told a story of bribing his math teacher with expensive champagne for a passing grade.

“I have applied for a US visa multiple times, and have been denied,” the driver said, “I am hoping to win the lottery.

The conversation continued, and my hesitation did not halt the men from questioning me about job security, education, politics, and taxes in the U.S. Those questions were familiar to me, as many Russians who view the U.S. with both jealousy and contempt, as well as utmost curiosity, find an opportunity to amicably investigate its citizen. I still had trouble with information on car loans and house prices, as well as the best locations for jobs and low tax rates. Their questions were specific, with intention. Their inquiries focused on financial practicality and country-to-country comparison, and their specificity reached beyond my knowledge.

I felt embarrassed that I could not satisfy their curiosity. They were forgiving.

We stalled at a queue to the drop-off line at the airport, when the driver asked me the last burning question.  He did so without hesitation or reserve as if the question naturally aligned with milk price inquiries.

“If I were to pass to the United States without documents, or get a visa and stay indefinitely, would I have a higher chance of entering through the Canadian or Mexican border?”

I was resilient to answer, not only because I was uninformed on the topic, but because I felt offended by his nonchalance. He felt that I, as a woman born in Russia, would support the notion of illegal immigration from a fellow Russki. Here he was, well-fed and with a car, scheming to sneak into my country.

At the same time, I felt a pang of guilt at my own reluctance.

I only got lucky with my own immigration status, naturalized through my mother’s marriage. Why did I feel a sense of superiority over an engineer who had no such luck?

“Canada, I think,” I said.

I was right.

While I waited in the queue for boarding the plane, I opened up a Google search. I wish I kept the number of the driver to tell him what I found.    

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At 3,987 miles, the international border of Canada and the US is the largest in the world. The terrace of the border includes heavy tree cover, as well as mountains. In comparison, the US-Mexico border is almost half that distance, at 1,933 miles. This may not come as a surprise to some, but for 18,000 Border Patrol agents at the Mexico border, there are only 2,100 US agents at the border of Canada. With double the distance and more than eight times of assigned agents, Mexico stands as a priority in our border regulations. But, could we be wrong? 

According to some security experts, it is far easier to enter the U.S. illegally through Canada than through the Mexico border. Logically, anyone who wanted to conduct an illegal activity that requires crossing the border would choose the path of least resistance. Then why, with all of the recent talk on illegal immigration, is our concern focused solely on the Southwest?

The amount of contraband brought to the USA through Canada may confirm our biases toward our neighbors of the North and the South. In the past year, agents made 3,000 arrests at the Northern border, a small number, compared to nearly half a million along the Southern border. Agents seized 700 pounds of marijuana and cocaine in the North, compared with 1.6 million pounds from Mexico. Yet, this begs the question – how much contraband was missed due to the lack of resources on the Northern border?

Due to the media-induced perspective from the recent political pushback against illegal immigration focused on our Southern neighbors, the reason behind such measures, and their outcome may seem obvious. However, regarding terroristic threats, the Canadian border poses as much of a threat, if not more, to US border security.    

An anthropologist and border researcher at the University of Texas at El Paso, Howard Campbell, weighs in on this issue: “I think we overemphasize security on the Southern border and we don’t emphasize enough on the northern border.”

“If Homeland Security is really concerned with security, and the biggest security threat is terrorism, we should be more worried about the Canadian border than the Mexican border,” said Campbell in a foreign senate testimony.

“Because Mexican and Central American migrant workers are not a terrorist threat to the United States,” he concluded.

Though the majority of numbers of illegal immigrants come from the Mexico border, the types of people doing so tend to be families and workers searching for opportunity.  According to an FBI Report on illegal immigration and terroristic threats, far more suspected terrorists trying to enter the country from the northern border with Canada than from the South.

The same FBI report shows data that compels concerns about potential terrorists crossing into the U.S. from Canada. There may be a big, immediate threat in that regard, according to some border and congressional officials.

“We often hear about security concerns on the southern border, but bad actors intent on entering our country will always seek the path of least resistance, so we must have the necessary tools and resources to secure both the northern and southern borders,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) said in an interview with The Daily Beast.

Just in the month of August of 2016, for example, there were double watchlisted individuals encountered at land border crossings in northern U.S. border states than in all states on the Mexican border combined. This means that potentially dangerous people, not family members or workers, have attempted to gain entry into the country for unknown reasons. Yet, the media creates a scapegoat of a job-stealing Mexican that sneaks through the border with the goal to bring in drugs to the country’s children, instead of focusing on a real issue and numbers. 

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Another hushed issue comes from the vast number of Canadians that overstay their visas in the US. Again, the media fails to mention this issue.  The Homeland Security report on people who overstayed their legally permitted time in the country states that in the year 2015, 93,000 Canadians whose permitted time in the US expired simply stayed behind. That’s more than twice the number of overstaying Mexicans. When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security published a report on people who overstayed their legally permitted time in the country, Canadians were at the top of that list. Yet, I am yet to hear Trump planning to build a wall enclosing Canada.

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This hypocrisy from our country may open many other conversations, particularly regarding race and our long-dated relationship with our Southern neighbors. I do not have the answer here, just as I did not have many answers for my Uber driver and his friend. What I do acknowledge is that I have judged a man contemplating the same idea as millions of Canadians, who come from an affluent country, especially compared to Russia. My own initial bias, on a small scale, shows the bias of the rest of the country. 

These numbers show that it may not be general illegal immigration and lawbreaking that the US public rallies against. It seems that we do not mind the amicable figure of the Canadian entering the country and breaking immigration laws. At the same time, we come out with pitchforks at the idea of a Mexican person doing the same. It is time to reevaluate what we want our country to stand for and create laws and regulations that do not discriminate one skin color or culture over another.

Maybe if Trump was not so busy frowning at Mexico and tweeting about a wall, and not consider anything else, our country’s disease of racism would not be so fatal. I think so, at least.

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