It is easy to sneak into the USA from Canada
U.S. self-check-in border with Canada scrutinized
Susan Taylor Martin
ST. LAWRENCE RIVER, U.S.-Canadian border - Call it the "honor system" of combating international crime and terrorism.
When private boaters enter U.S. waters from Canada, chances are there won't be any U.S. Customs officials there to meet them.
Instead, they are supposed to go to a videophone like the one at the city marina in Ogdensburg, N.Y. and give the home port, boat registration number, the names and citizenship of all passengers and a list of alcohol or anything else acquired outside the country.
It's even more basic on the Canadian side.
At Rockport, a picturesque village west of Ogdensburg, the tiny Canadian customs office is open only in summer and only in daylight.
Private boaters arriving from the United States at other times are directed to a nearby pay phone booth where they are supposed to report in using a toll-free number.
If this sounds like a system a smuggler, or terrorist, could easily exploit, that's because it is.
"We like to think people obey the law," said Kevin Corsaro of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But, he acknowledged, "it's hard to guarantee it."
The attention of most Americans has long been focused on their southern border, which thousands of Mexicans illegally cross each year in search of better jobs and lives.
But the northern border has come under increasing scrutiny since 1999, when an Algerian arriving from British Columbia with a carload of bombmaking materials was charged with plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.
Concern heightened after the Sept. 11 attacks and again this month, when Canadian authorities arrested 17 men, all Muslims, all Canadian citizens, on charges they planned to blow up Parliament and other landmarks.
The arrests sparked fears in the United States that home-grown Canadian terrorists could easily slip across a "Borderline Insecure," as a Canadian Senate committee called it in a report last year.
"If terrorists wanted to cripple Canada and simultaneously hobble the United States, where would they most likely strike?" the report asked. "An optimal target might well be the Ambassador Bridge."
As gloomy as this sounds, security on both sides of the land border has substantially increased since Sept. 11.
A new U.S. law requiring travelers to show passports by 2008 will make it harder for undesirables to move back and forth.
But the greater security on land only highlights the relative insecurity on the water.
"It'd be easy to get across," said Jamie Kennedy, an auto mechanic who was helping a friend repair his boat at the Ogdensburg marina, about a mile across the St. Lawrence River from Prescott, Ontario.
"If you turned the lights off in the middle of the night, no one will know it."
'Longest peaceful border' The U.S-Canadian border is often called the world's longest peaceful border.
Every year, it is legally crossed by more than 71 million people and $350 billion in goods, making each country the other's largest trading partner.
For about a third of its 4,000-mile length, the border runs through water the lakes and marshes of Minnesota, the vast expanse of the Great Lakes and finally the St. Lawrence River as it flows through a scenic maze of tiny, forested islands.
"It's a fluid border, an imaginary line, no fences, no markers," said Dick Ashlaw, the U.S. Border Patrol agent in charge of an area of northern New York.
"It's very difficult to patrol and guard."
It is in this part of New York that the vulnerability of the water border is most apparent.
In much of the region, the land slopes gently to the St. Lawrence, making it ideal for pleasure craft to tie up and unload passengers and cargo, legal or otherwise.
From there they can easily be transferred to vehicles waiting on lightly traveled roads that run close to the shoreline.
In the 1990s, when liquor taxes were higher in Canada than in the United States, the city of Cornwall, Ontario, seized and dumped so much illegal booze it started to contaminate the groundwater.
Cigarettes, firearms, guns
Today, smugglers spirit cigarettes and firearms into Canada, while the main activity in the other direction is drug smuggling, much of it high-quality marijuana.
Then there are the people who try to sneak across.
"For a long time it was predominantly Pakistanis and Indians, a lot of eastern Europeans, then Chinese," said Ashlaw, whose agents patrol a 40-mile stretch of river.
"These were people who got off the plane in Canada and claimed refugee status. They had no intention of staying in Canada, but it was easier to get into Canada."
In recent years, Asians have largely been replaced by other nationalities, including Arabs from the Middle East.
"Since 9/11 our mission has changed," Ashlaw said. "We're no longer looking at just illegal aliens, we've apprehended people with terrorist affiliations."