The North American Free Trade Agreement stimulated a boom in trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico. NAFTA's phaseout of tariffs made borders porous and goods and services have surged between the partners, setting new trade records.
But what NAFTA didn't address — movement of citizens between the three nations — is contained in new legislation before Congress that could bottleneck NAFTA-led gains.
Section 110 of the U.S. Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act stipulates U.S. immigration officials devise a system to record the entry and departure of each ``alien'' visiting the country. On the surface this seems a fair strategy to minimize illegal work practices and to help stem illegal drug trade. Some southern border state leaders applaud the section, believing it could cut social costs of millions of aliens working and living illegally in their states.
Northern state officials have a different take on Section 110. They foresee cumbersome new border procedures that will clog cross-border traffic in cities like Detroit and Buffalo where millions of Canadians annually enter the United States. They calculate delays several hours long, even if immigration officials spend less than a minute more time processing each Canadian vehicle at key border crossings. Such gridlock will delay thousands of truck crossings a day, threatening automotive and other industries reliant on just-in-time deliveries. What NAFTA has greased, Section 110 promises to seize up.
In current practice, most Canadians only need to answer a few questions when driving through U.S. immigration points and they aren't questioned at all when they leave. If immigration officials need to check the movement of each Canadian visitor, and keep traffic moving freely, someone will have to invest huge amounts in new infrastructure and extra immigration staff.
A cheaper, friendlier approach beckons. It is based on historical precedent: Canada and the United States have shared the longest undefended border in the world for 130 years, and for good reason. Canadian citizens pose little threat to their more populous neighbor and a new immigration law shouldn't suppose they do.
U.S. wealth may tempt illegal entry by citizens from poorer countries, but Canadians are not part of this problem. It would cost nothing to extend the welcome they now enjoy when visiting the United States.
A wise immigration law would recognize that not all ``aliens'' are alike. It would recognize that immigration officials are in the best position to judge border crossing problems. A wise law would provide guidance and a budget to fight immigration problems where they really exist.