WASHINGTON—Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced plans to hire 1,400 border guards and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, addressing longtime criticisms that his nation's immigration policies have made the country a haven for terrorists.
Harper's plan, unveiled Wednesday and Thursday, also calls for arming border security officers over the next 10 years, beginning next year.
Proponents of tough U.S. immigration enforcement have called for tighter controls on the Mexican border, but they've also voiced concern that Canada's sparsely patrolled border provides terrorists with an unimpeded gateway to America.
"The northern border is a concern, because it's double the size of the southern border and it's virtually unprotected," said John Keeley, spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
But the measures are already sparking a debate in Canada over whether they'll help bolster security in a post-Sept. 11 world or needlessly militarize the 4,000-mile U.S.-Canada border.
"It's extremely controversial for a lot of Canadians," said Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "We like to think of our country as welcoming to people who arrive at our border."
Harper's announcements come on the heels of the breakup of two alleged Toronto-based terror plots.
In early June, the RCMP arrested 17 young men and teenagers in an alleged scheme to take hostages in the Canadian Parliament and bomb buildings in southern Ontario. In late August, the United States and Canada announced that they'd foiled a plot by at least nine U.S. and Canadian residents to buy and ship arms to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam, a violent Sri Lankan separatist group.
"A safe, secure and efficient border is important for Canada, and for all Canadians," Harper said Thursday in Surrey, British Columbia. "It is vital to our country's economy and will protect the safety and security of all of our local communities."
Thursday's initiative to hire 400 border guards will cost $101 million over two years, the prime minister's office said. Four thousand Canadian agents are stationed along the border.
On Wednesday, Harper announced at the headquarters of the RCMP, Canada's premier investigative agency, the hiring of 600 officers and 400 support personnel at a cost of nearly $200 million over two years. He said he was keeping his promise to "give our law enforcement agencies the resources they need to help keep Canadians and their communities safe and secure."
Before Sept. 11, Canadians and Americans were accustomed to crossing the border easily, sometimes without identification checks. Since then, the number of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents assigned to the northern border has tripled, passport requirements have been tightened, and some U.S. lawmakers have proposed erecting a fence along some sections.
The United States has pressed the Ottawa government to toughen its border inspections and to allow armed U.S. agents to be stationed in Canada, across the border from Detroit, so they can question visitors before they enter the United States. The Canadians, who have strong anti-gun laws, have resisted.
James Bissett, head of Canada's immigration service in the late 1980s, said this week's announcements were in line with Harper's campaign pledges before the Alberta conservative won election last January. He noted that Harper's predecessor, Paul Martin, was perceived as a less enthusiastic ally of the U.S. war on terrorism, though Canada responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by creating its own homeland security agency, passing legislation similar to the USA Patriot Act and sending troops to Afghanistan to support the U.S. invasion.
Bissett praised Harper's security moves, both as a way to guard against terrorism and to keep violent criminals from entering Canada.
"Many American politicians think Canada poses a risk in terms of terrorism," he said. "But many Canadians think we're at risk to armed criminals coming from the United States. . . . I think the (Canadian) government just feels after 9/11 that we've got to realize that people want to kill us, and they could come from the U.S."
Dench questioned, however, whether border agents need to be armed.
"I don't think the evidence supports that the agents are actually in danger," she said. "Arguments can be made that once you're armed, things can escalate. . . . The fundamental question is, what kind of a country do you want and what kind of a message do you want to send to people who are arriving to our country."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Lisa Zagaroli contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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