Two-nation border deal could spur Whatcom economy, some say

Feb 9, 2011

The cooperative border security effort announced last week by U.S. and Canadian leaders could be good news for Whatcom County if the two nations can really deliver.
That's an opinion shared by Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, whose 2nd District includes Whatcom County.
They were reacting to a Feb. 4 joint announcement from U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, agreeing to map out a strategy to improve both security and economic vitality along the 4,000-mile border between the two countries.
"Smarter border management is key to our competitiveness, our job creation and my goal of doubling U.S. exports," Obama said.
Among other things, the two leaders pledged to streamline and coordinate regulations to stimulate trade.
The announcement from Obama and Harper came just three days after U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, charged that the Canadian border is providing "easy passage into America by extremists, terrorists and criminals whose purpose clearly is to harm the American people."
That was how Lieberman reacted to a Government Accountability Office report on the need for better coordination of law enforcement along the northern border. The report was entitled "Enhanced Department of Homeland Security Oversight and Assessment of Interagency Coordination is Needed for the Northern Border."
As Larsen sees it, Obama got it right and Lieberman didn't. He said the president rightly stressed the importance of the economic relationship with Canada - this country's largest trading partner.
"In tone, it (the president's approach) is 180 degrees away from how the senators presented their report last week," Larsen said in a telephone interview. "You need to have a balance between the security focus and the trade focus. ... It's when security starts to overwhelm trade and tourism that our economy gets harmed."
Larsen said there was little in the GAO's report to justify the alarmed comments from Lieberman and other senators.
At the same time, Larsen noted that Obama and Harper pledged to take specific steps to improve mutual security by coordinating the activities of both federal and non-federal law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border. That was also the focus of the GAO report.
The chamber's Oplinger observed that the announcement from Obama and Harper is just a first step. Now, officials from both countries have to come up with specific measures to improve security for both countries while also making the border less of a barrier to binational trade and tourism.
The key, in Oplinger's view, will be federal officials' receptiveness to input from business people, local governments and law enforcement agencies along the border. That will help ensure that fear doesn't override common sense in border security policies.
"A lot of that drumbeat about security comes from people who don't really live the border experience," Oplinger said.
If new border policies are crafted in a vacuum by Washington, D.C.-based officials from the Homeland Security and State departments and their Canadian counterparts, Oplinger isn't optimistic about the outcome.
"If that's all who are going to be at the table, we might as well throw this thing away because it's not going to do any good at all," he said.