The case for a Canada-U.S. land swap

A former homeland security official says there’s an easy way to ease our border problems

This land is your land?

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Canada and America are about to resume negotiations over a cross-border customs agreement known as “land pre-clearance.” These negotiations failed in 2008 and, despite good intentions, may very well fail again. There is a better way—a land swap, formally exchanging territory on opposite sides of the border. It may take longer—but a long process that succeeds is far better than a shorter process that doesn’t.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a plan they called “Beyond the Border.” The main idea behind it was for Canada and the United States to co-operate on a secure perimeter for their common space—in effect, applying the NORAD model to the movement of people, goods and services into North America. This is fundamentally a good idea for both countries—like it or not, our security is inextricably linked. From a Canadian perspective, one of the major corollary benefits of a joint approach to the perimeter would be the “thinning” of the border between the two countries, facilitating travel and trade.

To that end, one part of the December plan to implement the agreement (released earlier this month) calls for Canada and the United States to negotiate a land pre-clearance agreement—that is, an agreement where American customs and immigration officials will physically be located on the Canadian side of the border to screen people, trucks, and cargo before they cross into the U.S.; Canadian border officials would, likewise, do their work at a facility on the American side.

This is not a new proposal. In fact, we are now approaching the 10th anniversary of the first time the two countries discussed this idea. As an official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, I participated in these negotiations from 2005 until late 2008, when they last broke down.

The reasons they broke down are by now quite familiar. Americans tend to favour stricter security measures than Canadians do, measures that many Canadians see as overly intrusive and violating civil liberties and privacy rights. Simply by way of example, one small but intractable problem proved to be whether or not the U.S. would be allowed to keep a record of people trying to enter from Canada but who refused to undergo screening and walked away from the entry point. To Americans, that was a possible surreptitious attempt to probe their border security; to Canadians it was the exercise of a fundamental right to privacy and choice.

At bottom, however, the question was not so much about policy—those differences can, in the end, be compromised and negotiated. Rather, the fundamental divergence was over sovereignty. Canadians, quite reasonably, wanted Canadian law to apply on Canadian soil. Americans, equally reasonably, wanted American law to apply to those trying to enter the United States. That circle of equally valid concerns could not be squared, try as we might.

And yet the new Border Action Plan says we will try again. Why? Well, everyone involved thinks that these types of negotiations are the “quick” and “easy” way to resolve the issue. Ten years after we began, it is time to re-examine that premise.

There is another way—one that is guaranteed to work. The two countries could agree to exchange land: Canada would own 500 hectares (say) on the American side of the border and put its customs site(s) there, while the U.S. would get 500 hectares of Canada for its site(s). Since the land would, officially and legally, belong to the country that operated the facility, there would be no problems of legal sovereignty. It is, in fact, an elegant and comprehensive solution.

So why haven’t we done it? When I asked that question in 2006, I was told that land swaps require a formal treaty. According to the “experts,” it would take too long (say 10-15 years) to negotiate the treaty and get it signed and, eventually, ratified by the U.S. Senate and Parliament. Nobody wanted to take that long.

That was five years ago. If we had started then, we might be halfway done by now. If we had started in 2002 when the issue was first broached, President Obama and Prime Minister Harper would be planning a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

So, instead of trying again to negotiate an agreement that may well founder on the same intractable issues that bedevilled prior efforts, how about something new? Let’s just trade the land.


The case for a Canada-U.S. land swap

  1. This article makes no sense.  What is the benefit of preclearance?  It is to ease congestion at the border, by inspecting cargo elsewhere, and then crossing the border at a pre-determined site with tamper-protection mechanisms to ensure the cargo has not changed.

    So, if you intend to swap land, then it makes no sense for it to be near the border, all you’re doing is exchanging congestion at the border for congestion close to the border.  It only makes sense to do preclearance at facilities where it’s truly more convenient.  Preclearance is done at airports for instance, where it’s much simpler to clear passengers before they board a flight, for instance.

    And that’s where it gets tricky.  Exactly what land do you hand over to the americans?  It really only makes sense to allow the americans into distribution facilities that already exist.  Which is simply not feasible – you can’t hand over a Walmart distribution centre to the Americans, it’s a private company that owns the building and land.  But if you hand over to the Americans a parcel of land with nothing on it, then preclearance is no longer convenient, you’re just ferrying the cargo to a different location that is no more convenient than simply adding more capacity at the border.

  2. How does swapping land solve any of the problems they’re arguing over? It doesn’t, except on paper you solve the problems with technicalities.

  3. A more sensible solution would be to realize that Canada and the USA don’t need a border between them as long as we have a perimeter around us. Sign a Schengen-type agreement or Trans-Tasman agreement, and let people pass freely, as they did for most of North American history.

  4. Consider this. If I had a bomb in my truck I could be in the middle of the bridge at any crossing into southern Ontario and blow it up with out passing any security. Bridge gone. Travel halted. Trade dead. Economy screwed. Putting the checkpoints before the bridge would, in theory, potentially prevent this from happening. As it is I trucks and travelers don’t pass any security until they are already past the most vulnerable portion of the supply chain.

    • That is exactly what the relevance of preclearance is all about.  Congestion, logistics, private property etc… all valid secondary questions that would have to be sorted out but let’s look at the central objective and how to accomplish that.

  5. Whatever happened to the idea of a Customs Union?  A single, shared agency, kind of like NORAD, for both the US and Canada for applying a common set of tariffs to goods entering a N.A. perimeter? A common agency to train officials for both security and customs duties?  I don’t see people talking about it anymore.  Maybe it’s because this idea gets caught up in North American Union debates and that’s just too hot to handle.  It does seem like the next logical, incremental step to a more efficient AND safer border though.

  6. Hi, this is the author responding to SCF.  In a short article, I’m afraid I couldn’t make this as clear as I might have liked — but the main value of pre-clearance is on the Eastern half of the US-Canada border where most of the crossings are bridges (or, in one case, a tunnel).  These are expensive pieces of infrastructure that cause significant backups when the inspection check point is on the downstream side of the bridge — the two lanes going across back up for miles.  In addition the US entry points are often in congested downtown cities (think Buffalo or Detroit) and can’t be expanded to provide greater capacity.  By moving the inspection sites to the other side of the boarder we can build much larger facilities, with much greater throughput and avoid the bridge bottlenecks.  Some of the studies suggest a time savings of as much as 30%.

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