Canada refugee plan revives concerns over porous US border

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Standing two feet from Canada on windswept Montana prairie land, U.S. Border Patrol agent Andrew Herdina looks out over a line of crooked old fence posts with no wire between them -- the international border.

"If somebody is set on doing it, there are plenty of opportunities to cross this border," said Herdina, surrounded by a vast expanse of prairie grass where there were no border posts, or checkpoints, or any visible signs of security.

With U.S. security concerns heightened following the attacks in Paris claimed by Islamic State, the relatively porous state of America's northern border has attracted little attention as politicians, mostly Republicans, have attacked President Barack Obama's plans to allow in 10,000 Syrian refugees.

But in Montana, which shares a 500-mile (800-km) border with Canada, border agents and some residents say they are concerned about Ottawa's plan to bring in 25,000 Syrians by year-end, even though the government there insists its screening will be thorough and there are limited indications that militants may be seeking to use refugee status to cross borders.

The world's longest shared land border attracts a fraction of the U.S. attention and security resources taken up by the much shorter southern border with Mexico, which is patrolled by 18,000 U.S. border agents compared to 2,200 in the north.

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Canada refugee plan revives concerns over porous US border
NIAGARA FALLS, NY - JUNE 04: The Rainbow Bridge crosses from the United States (L), into Canada near the Niagara Falls on June 4, 2013 at Niagara Falls, New York. The falls, which have a combined highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world, straddle the U.S.-Canada border, on the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The falls, visited by millions of tourists on each side of the border, are also a major source of hydroelectric power for the region. The aerial view was seen from a helicopter flown by the U.S. Office of Air and Marine, (OAM), which monitors and patrols the U.S. northern border with Canada. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
In this photo taken Thursday, May 23, 2013, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer reaches for identification from a driver as cars from Canada line up to cross into the U.S. in Blaine, Wash., at Peace Arch State Park. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
LAKE METIGOSHE, ND - SEPTEMBER 8: A sign warns about the potential consequences of illegal entry into the United States or Canada on September 8, 2006 at Lake Metigoshe, North Dakota. The lake lies on the border between the two nations. (Photo by: Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
COLUMBIA VALLEY, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA - JUNE 18: Obelisks mark the border between the United States and Canada in Columbia Valley, British Columbia, Canada, on June 18, 2006. (Photo by: Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
BLACK ROCK, NY - JUNE 04: U.S. Border Patrol agent John Stanko walks along a rail bridge connecting the U.S. with Canada on June 4, 2013 near Black Rock, New York. U.S. Border Patrol agents monitor the bridge for undocumented immigrants trying to cross either into or out of the United States illegally on the bridge. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Border Patrol Agent Sandy Walters, Field Operations Supervisor, patrols under the Grand Island Bridge near the international border with Canada near Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
August 1, 2008 - CHAMPLAIN, NEW YORK - The fence which marks the property line, and the property line of a house on the Canadian side, also represents the international border. The Canada-US border where New York and Vermont meet with Quebec, is part of the northern frontier for US Border Patrol agents. Increased staffing and increased budgets have led to better enforcement across the region. Toronto Star/Rick Madonik (Photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
DEPEW, NY - JUNE 05: U.S. Border Patrol agents check passenger identifications aboard an Amtrak train from Chicago to New York City on June 5, 2013 in Depew, New York. The agents set up a 24 hour check of transportation hubs in and around Buffalo. They said they received intelligence of undocumented immigrants passing through the area. The Border Patrol also monitors cross along the northern border between the United States and Canada. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
DEPEW, NY - JUNE 05: A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks passenger identifications aboard an Amtrak train from Chicago to New York City on June 5, 2013 in Depew, New York. The agents set up a 24 hour check of transportation hubs in and around Buffalo. They said they received intelligence of undocumented immigrants passing through the area. The Border Patrol also monitors cross along the northern border between the United States and Canada. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
DEPEW, NY - JUNE 05: U.S. Border Patrol agents check passenger identifications at a train station on June 5, 2013 in Depew, New York. The agents set up a 24 hour check of transportation hubs in and around Buffalo. They said they received intelligence of undocumented immigrants passing through the area. The Border Patrol also monitors cross border traffic along the northern border between the United States and Canada. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
August 1, 2008 - CHAMPLAIN, NEW YORK - The Bush Road (must check proper name), looking back to the US from the Canadian side of the fence. Formerly a valid entry point to the US, with an agricultural inspection centre, it is no longer in use and monitored. The Canada-US border where New York and Vermont meet with Quebec, is part of the northern frontier for US Border Patrol agents. Increased staffing and increased budgets have led to better enforcement across the region. Toronto Star/Rick Madonik (Photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
LEWISTON, NY - JUNE 04: The Niagara River emerges from the Niagara Gorge on June 4, 2013 at Lewiston, New York. The river forms the border between the United States (L), and Canada and drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The river is a major source of hydroelectric power for the region. The aerial view was seen from a helicopter flown by the U.S. Office of Air and Marine, (OAM), which monitors and patrols the U.S. northern border with Canana. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
SWEETGRASS, MONTANA-March 3, 2005-This border marker sits on a gravel road that goes between Montana and Alberta, Canada. It is between the border crossing of Sweetgrass, MT to Coutts, Alberta and Whitlash, MT. to Aden, Alberta, Canada (THE DENVER POST PHOTO BY LYN ALWEIS) NOTE: WE MAY NOT WANT TO TELL WHERE THESE ROADS ARE (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 03: A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks over Lake Erie near the U.S.-Canada border on June 3, 2013 in Buffalo, New York. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, monitors the 5,525 mile long border, including Alaska, forming the longest international border between two countries in the world. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Oroville, Washington-March 2, 2005- Richard M. Graham, Jr. steps out of his truck on the U.S. side of the border. The Border Patrol know that people have entered the U.S. in this area because they can see footprints in the snow. The border betweeen the U.S. and Canada can be seen behind him as a rancher's fence caught snow and held it there on the Canadian side. (THE DENVER POST PHOTO BY LYN ALWEIS) Yes, that is the border up on those hills. (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
NORTON, VT - MARCH 22: U.S. Border Patrol Agents Paul Mulcahy (L) and Andrew Mayer ride snowmobiles as they look for signs of illegal aliens as they cross a frozen lake that is split between the Canadian territory to the right and the U.S. March 22, 2006 near Norton, Vermont. As American politicians continue to debate immigration reform, Border Patrol agents work the northern border to prevent illegal entry. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
BEECHER FALLS, VT - MARCH 23: A U.S. Border Patrol agent stands along the boundary marker cut into the forest marking the line between Canadian territory on the right and the United States March 23, 2006 near Beecher Falls, Vermont. As American politicians continue to debate immigration reform, Border Patrol agents work the northern border to prevent illegal entry. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
In this Feb. 10, 2011 photo, U.S. Border Patrol agents Janice Jones, left, and Glenn Pickering ride snowmobiles along the St. Lawrence River in Massena, N.Y. This is the United Statesâ forgotten border, where federal agents and police play cat-and-mouse with smugglers and illegal immigrants along 4,000 miles of a mostly unmarked and unfortified frontier with Canada. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
In this Thursday, May 23, 2013 photo, cars from Canada line up to cross into the United States, in Blaine, Wash., at Peace Arch State Park. In April 2013, in its 2014 fiscal year budget proposal, the Department of Homeland Security requested permission to study a fee at the nation's land border crossings. The request has sparked wide opposition among members of Congress from northern states, who vowed to stop it. A fee, they say, would hurt communities on the border that rely on people, goods and money moving between the U.S. and Canada. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
SUMAS, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA - JUNE 18: Canada is on the left side of the ditch and the United States is on the right near Sumas, British Columbia, Canada, on June 18, 2006. The road is under video surveillance and Border Patrol agents make frequent passes on the roadway. The amount of traffic on the Canadian roadway is much greater. (Photo by Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
In this Thursday, May 23, 2013 photo, cars from Canada line up to cross into the U.S. in Blaine, Wash. In April 2013, in its 2014 fiscal year budget proposal, the Department of Homeland Security requested permission to study a fee at the nation's land border crossings. The request has sparked wide opposition among members of Congress from northern states, who vowed to stop it. A fee, they say, would hurt communities on the border that rely on people, goods and money moving between the U.S. and Canada. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
NIAGARA FALLS, NY - OCTOBER 18: On a windy day, mist partially obscures the huge waterfalls and creates a rainbow, on October 18, 2013 in Niagara Falls, New York. Niagara Falls is the collective name for three waterfalls that straddle the international border between Canada and the United States. The combined falls form the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world, with a vertical drop of more than 165 feet. The falls are renowned both for their beauty - drawing tourists from around the world - and as a valuable source of hydroelectric power. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
BLACK ROCK, NY - JUNE 03: A U.S. Border Patrol boat patrols the Niagara River forming the U.S.-Canada border on June 3, 2013 near Black Rock, New York. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, monitors the 5,525 mile long border, including Alaska, forming the longest international border between two countries in the world. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
In this Aug. 10, 2011 photo, a marker indicates the official border between the U.S. and Canada in Richford, Vt. Before 9/11, many border communities in Vermont and Quebec were barely separated by an international boundary. People in some communities used to run back and forth several times a day between the United States and Canada on local streets. Now that'll get people arrested. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
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The National Border Patrol Council, the border patrol union, says at least another 2,000 agents are needed on the Canadian border, which runs 5,500 miles from Alaska to Washington State and Maine. Herdina says the most effective tool in tracking illegal border crossers is not the border agents or surveillance airplanes; it's the roughly 100 ranchers who span Montana's border with Canada.

"They are our best asset," said Herdina, who is vice-president of the Montana branch of the union.

Last year, one rancher called the border patrol to report two strangers on his land, Herdina said. They were two Guatemalans who had crossed the border illegally.

Janas Strauser, owner of 66 Ranch on the border, said: "The people up here will report people who cross the border. The ranchers and farmers call them in."

While the border patrol union has a stake in securing more jobs and funding, its view was supported by a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan congressional watchdog, which found that only 32 miles of the border was properly secure and that the security risks were genuine.

"The terrorist threat on the northern border is higher (than on the Mexican border), given the large expanse of area with limited law enforcement coverage," the report said.

The White House referred questions about the security of the northern border to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The DHS referred Reuters to its website, which notes that the number of U.S. agents on the northern border has jumped from just 340 in 2001 and that its technological capabilities have "greatly improved." The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says it now deploys fixed and rotary-wing aircraft equipped with sensors, thermal camera systems, remote videos and drones to help secure the border.

"There is no way you can make it totally secure," said Andrew Finn, program associate with the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington DC-based think tank. "You always have to think about the terrorist threat, although the vetting process for refugees into Canada is quite thorough."

"HYSTERIA AND EXAGGERATION"

Obama has denounced the "hysteria and exaggeration of risk" over Syrian refugees, who already face a rigorous U.S. vetting process. Most of the attackers in Paris are believed to be have been European residents rather than new immigrants, though authorities are investigating if one traveled as a refugee.

Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is standing by his pledge to allow 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada by Jan. 1. Current and former Canadian security sources told Reuters last week that corners would have to be cut on security screening due to the accelerated process.

Canada experienced two attacks by radical Muslims in 2014, and reluctance in provinces such as Quebec to accept Syrian refugees is raising concern of a growing social rift with Muslim minorities.

In 1999, Algerian national Ahmed Ressam was apprehended crossing from Canada into the United States and convicted in 2001 for plotting to bomb Los Angeles airport.

Alan Bersin, then head of the Customs and Border Protection Commission, told a Senate committee in 2011 that more people with ties to terrorist organizations have crossed into the U.S. from Canada than from Mexico. He did not give any specific details.

Herdina says he has apprehended Mexicans, Cubans, Guatemalans and Canadians crossing remote parts of the border.

"We have no idea how these Syrians will be vetted by the Canadians. We need a lot more agents here," he said.

Jonathan Perkins, a border patrol agent who is an advisor to the national union and who used to work on the Canada border, said: "It is a very porous border. We are greatly understaffed there."

According to the CBP, 3,338 people were arrested trying to cross the Canadian border in 2014. Of those, 1,673 were from countries other than Mexico.

Last week, a bipartisan bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives requiring an analysis of terrorism threats posed by people trying to enter America through the Canadian border. A similar bipartisan Senate bill awaits a vote.

Over 3,000 of the refugees entering Canada are slated to settle in Alberta province, north of Montana.

In Havre, Montana, 40 miles south of Canada, Jenny Van Cleve, a waitress, says she is scared about the arrival of the Syrian refugees into Canada.

"The border is so easy to cross, pretty much anywhere. And there are abandoned houses all over the place to hide out in. We have farmer friends who find people in their buildings all the time. It's scary."

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