U.S. needs to be 'much more vigilant' to stem flow of asylum seekers: security expert

Canadian and U.S. officials need to co-ordinate their efforts to help stem the flow of would-be refugee claimants sneaking into Canada, which includes beefing up patrols on roads heading north to the border, says one security expert.

RCMP working with U.S. counterparts to control claimants sneaking across border, security expert says

Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen points to the U.S. border from the Canadian side. The small town of Emerson. Man., has been overwhelmed in recent weeks by the influx of asylum seekers sneaking across the border from the U.S. and claiming refugee status in Canada. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Canadian and U.S. officials need to co-ordinate their efforts to help stem the flow of would-be refugee claimants sneaking into Canada, which includes beefing up patrols on roads heading north to the border, says one security expert.

"Basically we need to make sure we work with U.S. border patrol and state troopers to try to intercept suspicious vehicles long before they make it to the border," said Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University.

"We need to work with local agencies to make sure they're much more vigilant, that when they see vehicles that might look like they might not fit a standard pattern in that particular area, that they pull them over, they see what's going on."

The increase of would-be refugee claimants sneaking into Canada from the U.S. has raised questions about whether more needs to be done to beef up border security in both countries. In recent weeks, dozens from the U.S. seeking asylum have hiked through the snowy fields to cross the border near the town of Emerson, Man.

A sign near the closed border point where refugee claimants have been crossing into Canada. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Setting up checkpoints in the U.S. along roads heading to Emerson may deter some asylum seekers from crossing into Canada, Leuprecht said. But it's unlikely to stem the flow.

"We would probably just displace the flow to one of the smaller crossings," he said. 

"Because of the nature of the border and the number of crossings, I don't think that's realistically feasible, but it would act as a bit of a deterrent."

'Quiet discussions'

Instead, the RCMP could work with U.S. border patrol agents to strengthen enforcement on U.S. roads near the Emerson crossing, he said.

"I suspect that's the quiet discussions the RCMP will already be having with [U.S.] border patrol."

Eric Kuhn, a U.S. border patrol officer, points down a farmer's field toward Canada. The increase of refugee claimants sneaking into Canada from the U.S. across fields such as this has raised questions about whether more needs to be done to beef up border security. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

On the Canadian side, the Canada Border Services Agency is responsible for security at official points of entry. However, the RCMP is tasked with patrolling the large areas between them.

In a townhall meeting in Emerson last week, RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel confirmed that the force has "allocated resources to that area" and that officers are working very closely "with our partners across the border."

"We do have technology, we do have patrols, we do have an integrated border enforcement team, we have detachments across the border," Seel said. 

It is a challenge, though, considering they are responsible for patrolling over 500 kilometres of border in Manitoba. 

"It is quite an extensive region that we are responsible for, but we do have resources in place that are necessary," she said.

Leuprecht said both the Canadians and Americans have an interest in making sure those who seek to cross illegally into each other's country are apprehended.

Each other's best partners

'The basic premise is we're each other's friends and we're each other's best partners," Leuprecht said. "So anyone who crosses north to south or south to north outside of a port of entry —  [that's] conduct that is not in the interest of either country."

Many refuge-seekers looking to come into Canada from the U.S. have crossed the border from North Dakota or Minnesota into Manitoba. (CBC)

According to U.S. law, the area within 80 kilometres of a U.S. border is considered a border zone, meaning any law enforcement agency can stop anyone there and ask for identification or ask what they're doing.

"So U.S. border patrol is an important partner in this effort," Leuprecht said.

To patrol the border on the Prairies, the U.S. relies on drones, said Leuprecht. During the day, there's permanent drone surveillance, meaning many asylum seekers who want to avoid border posts are more likely to cross at night.

Infrared technology is used to patrol the border, but at night it's much more difficult to detect people. Heat signatures also can be traced but by the time they are detected, it's usually too late, and people are already out in a field somewhere, Leuprecht said.

"So, people cross at night because they know during the day, they will be apprehended by border patrol."

Threat called unlikely

University of Ottawa professor and security expert Wesley Wark said he doesn't believe the relatively small number of people crossing the border so far has any security implications.

He said he doesn't believe Canada should worry about organized terrorists who would try to exploit these routes to get into Canada.

"In terms of nefarious activity, whether it's terrorist related or people smuggling or drug smuggling or anything like that, the remoteness and the difficulty of crossing the border in these kinds of ways I think largely rules that out."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.