While President Donald Trump fixates on the threat at the U.S-Mexico border, House Democrats plan to use their agenda to investigate the terrorist threat at the northern border.
There are nearly 200 vacancies for Border Patrol agents at the Canadian border, and the Department of Homeland Security has warned that homegrown terrorists can easily — and legally — cross the U.S.-Canada border without being noticed.
This terrorist threat has caught notice of Democrats now running the House Homeland Security Committee, which will investigate the porous nature of the Canadian border and whether the border agency has the right resources to catch would-be terrorists from slipping into the country unnoticed.
“Where is it that, you know, there’s porous areas in our homeland security structure?” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), who is expected to lead the House Homeland Security Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee, told POLITICO. “And I think looking at the Canadian border is definitely a place I want to go.”
The White House is asking for $211 million to hire 750 more Border Patrol agents — an ask that appears to be limited to the southern border, where more than 17,000 agents already work.
In contrast, about 2,000 agents in all now police the northern border, according to a recent report by House Homeland Security Republicans. And the Canadian border is more than twice as long as the U.S. border with Mexico.
Democratic members plan to “ensure security of the northern border hasn’t been ignored by the administration,” a committee spokesperson said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has faced challenges recruiting and keeping personnel at the northern border sectors along the 5,525-mile-long boundary. Clusters of cities and waterways hover around portions of the border, but vast swaths are sparsely populated and cover rugged terrain.
The Department of Homeland Security made improving resources and personnel a goal in its northern border strategy, which was updated in June 2018. The biggest threat along the border, it said, was illicit drug trade. However, possible terror threats stem “from homegrown violent extremists in Canada who are not included in the U.S. Government’s consolidated terrorist watch list and could therefore enter the United States legally at Northern Border ports of entry … without suspicion,” the report said.
The most recent State Department country report on terrorism for Canada notes that the nation experienced three terrorist attacks in 2017, and that “the main internal threat is from lone actors” inspired by organizations like the Islamic State and al-Qaida.
But on Mexico, U.S. diplomats said “there was no credible evidence” showing that global terrorist groups have set up shop in Mexico or sent members into the U.S. via the southwest border.
“The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States,” the State Department said in its 2017 report.
Still, building a wall along the southwest border with Mexico has become the primary focus of Trump’s presidency of late. His ongoing standoff with congressional Democrats over providing nearly $6 billion for the barrier spurred him to deliver a prime-time address to reiterate his case.
NBC News reported this month that CBP data provided to lawmakers last year showed that the agency stopped just six foreign nationals listed on the Terrorist Screening Database at the southwest border in the first half of fiscal 2018, compared with 41 foreigners listed in the database encountered at the Canadian border. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had said CBP had caught 4,000 known or suspected terrorists “that came across our southern border,” a claim Vice President Mike Pence later repeated. Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway later walked back the false claim, saying it was an “unfortunate misstatement.”
Correa referenced the CBP data — in addition to an estimated 3,700 people on the watch list trying to enter the U.S. through its airports — when discussing how he wants to conduct oversight of DHS’ work.
“If we’re going to do a solid job of looking at where the security issues are, we’ve got to look at all our borders,” he said, also noting airports and coastlines. “Mexico, you know, everybody’s discussed that. But Canada, nobody looks at Canada.”
His committee’s plans would be part of a sprawling oversight agenda House Democrats plan have for the 116th Congress, which focuses on everything from scandal-plagued former Cabinet officials to White House policy decisions on immigration.
There is a long history of aspiring terrorists crossing into the U.S. from Canada.
Ahmed Ressam was arrested in 1999 after he tried to flee from U.S. immigration agents, who found explosive materials in his car. He’d plotted to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. And three Canadians were convicted of smuggling a bomb over the border with Vermont in 1987.
Correa said he’s spoken to CBP officers at the northern border who previously worked at the southwest border and would coordinate with Mexican authorities on stopping suspicious travelers. But when it came to working with Canadian border officials in the same way, he said they relayed to him, they “would totally ignore their information.”
“So, yeah, we need to look at the Canadian border,” Correa said. “Not to make it harder to come into the U.S., but to make sure that we’re going after the bad guys.”