Interview with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano

The following is a transcript of an interview between U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and the CBC's Neil Macdonald on the topic of the Canadian-U.S. border.

The following is a transcript of an interview between U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and the CBC's Neil Macdonald on the topic of the Canadian-U.S. border. The interview was conducted April 20, 2009, in Washington, D.C.

NM: Madam Secretary, I have to ask you about our shared border. You have said that the new regulations will go into effect, to start being enforced, in June, which is going to make life considerably more complicated for the hundreds of millions of people that go back and forth across that border every year. And I guess a lot of people in Canada, and I suspect a lot of people in the northern part of the United States, are wondering why, why tamper with something that has clearly worked so well for so many years?

JN: Well this was…. Part of it's because Congress has said we must. It's the law.

NM: Sure, but what do you think?

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano says the United States will not treat the Canadian border differently from the Mexican border. ((Joshua Roberts/Reuters))

JN: A border is an, is an important structure to have, and I know that the pattern at the Canadian border has been informality. But borders are important for immigration purposes. They're also important for crime purposes and, in the isolated case, also for terrorism. And because, in part, our two countries have different standards for visas and who is allowed in our countries, there really are some things that the border helps to identify. 

So my goal — given that Congress has said you will have a border, you will check documents — is that we make sure that the implementation is done as smoothly as possible....

Anybody who comes through that border's been getting what's called a tear sheet saying, hey look, you've got to have a document, this is what is going to come into place in June. We are working now on a kind of an enhanced public relations strategy for the next month, five weeks or so, before the actual deadline occurs. We will have, you know, extra technology in place, we've been installing RFID technology in the ports along the Canadian border. We're just about completed with that project. I've identified extra staff to go to the Canadian border. The Department of State has identified extra staff to help with the passport situation, so from an implementation standpoint.

NM: You're ready.

JN: Well, we're working as hard as we can to make sure that it goes as smoothly as possible. Whenever changes like this occur, there's always somebody who doesn't get what they want. But we hope to make this as smooth as possible.

NM: You've certified that the border is ready, in fact.

JN: We have certified that the border is ready… and with the secretary of state.

NM: [Congresswoman] Louise Slaughter, amongst others, and I think a lot of Canadian officials, predict chaos — that there's going to be 10-mile-long traffic jams, especially at the big crossings where a lot of trucks go through, that a lot of Americans don't carry passports, that the countries are going to be taken by surprise, that it's going to be very costly and very snarled.

JN: Well, I certainly hope that doesn't come into play. 

One of the things I've talked to with the congresswoman is what her office can do, and her colleagues in Canada can do, to keep getting the word out that this is a real border and that documents will have to be presented at the border. And again, because we've added technology and other things to the border that didn't previously exist, our goal is to keep those lines moving.

I mean, I understand how important borders are. I'm a former border state governor myself, and you need to keep those lines short and moving. Tourism, trade, all kinds of things go back and forth, so we've got to get that balance right between security and documentation — it's a real border, but also moving the lines.

A U.S customs officer checks the identification papers of a driver crossing the border in Detroit on Jan. 31, 2008. Starting June 1, travellers will have to have a passport to enter the United States by water or land. ((Rebecca Cook/Reuters))

NM: I'm going to quote you here. A couple of weeks ago, you said that, you cited a feeling in the United States that if things — this is a quote — "are being done on the Mexican border, they should also be done on the Canadian border. We shouldn't go light on one border and not on the other." 

You know 6,000 civilians were killed in drug violence in Mexico last year. They export kidnappings. I think we can all agree that's not happening in Saskatchewan. Why the need for same level of security on the Canadian border as on the Mexican border given two drastically different realities?

JN: Look, the comment you read of course was taken out of context. The law doesn't differentiate. The law says the borders are the borders and these are the kind of things that have to be done at the borders. 

Secondly, yes, Canada is not Mexico, it doesn't have a drug war going on, it didn't have 6,000 homicides that were drug-related last year. Nonetheless, to the extent that terrorists have come into our country or suspected or known terrorists have entered our country across a border, it's been across the Canadian border. There are real issues there.

NM: Are you talking about the 9/11 perpetrators?

JN: Not just those but others as well. So again, every country is entitled to have a border. It's part of sovereignty. It's part of knowing who's in the country. 

We have very dissimilar visa requirements. We want to work with Canada. Canada is such a close friend and ally and good friends with the United States. But I think we've all agreed that it makes sense to have a real border structure there. And again the law in the United States does not differentiate between the Mexican border and the Canadian border, so from my standpoint as the implementer of the law, that's what I'm dealing with.

NM: You know you mention terrorism, and there have been a lot of prominent American officials, including Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton when she was a senator and a number of other congressmen and senators, that have said that there has to be tighter security because a lot of the 9/11 perpetrators came in through Canada. 

The fact, of course, is that they didn't. They all came directly into the States, sometimes with U.S. visas. Senator [Charles] Schumer cited terrorists crossing at Buffalo, and then had to concede that that hadn't happened. I think there's kind of a popular misconception in this country that Canadians have been battling for a long time that we're somehow a nest of terrorism. But in reality it's not the case. And why is that view so common here?

JN: Well again, and I'm not privileged to say everything that has occurred. I mean, some things have occurred in the past. I can't talk to that. I can talk about the future. And here's the future. The future is we have borders. The borders are going to be enabled with greater technology, but it's not going to be going back and forth as if there's no border anymore. 

I think that the United States Congress years ago said, You know what? We have borders both north and south, and we have to have some standards and implement them at the border, so we're not going to, we're no longer going to have this fiction that there's no longer a border between Canada and the United States. 

That is very different, however, from not having a workable border, and that's where my goal is. We're going to have a working border where families can go back and forth, a hockey team that has a game that has to be on one side of the border or the other, that we facilitate that. That we use technology to make those lines move more quickly, and fast lanes and sentry lanes and all the other kinds of things that you can set up. To me that's really the future that we are building.

NM: One last very quick question. You know that Canada has thoroughly investigated the case of Maher Arar, and there's been a royal commission, and a very senior judge in our country, having weighed all of the evidence, declared that Mr. Arar was not guilty of associating with terrorists. And I think Canada paid him a great deal of money as compensation, and yet the United States still refuses to take Mr. Arar off the no-fly list. Your predecessors did. Your acting ambassador in Canada said that policy was going to continue. Have you at least seen and been able to weigh this secret evidence that bars him from the United States?

JN: I have not personally reviewed Mr. Arar's case, but I do know that there has been a unanimity among all the people who have reviewed it that his status should not now be changed.

NM: So Canada was wrong.

JN: That his status at least for admission to the United States purposes should not be changed.

NM: I appreciate it, Madam Secretary. Thanks for taking the time.

JN: You bet. Thank you.