Canada's new Liberal prime minister plans to "fast track" the acceptance of thousands of Syrian refugees over the next few weeks and that has some in Congress worried about security at the mostly unpatrolled northern border.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office Nov. 4 promising to take in no less than 25,000 Syrian refugees by Dec. 31 and up to 50,000 by the end of 2016. The government fell far short of its goal, admitting only 6,000 as of Dec. 31 and about 15,000 to date, but Trudeau's administration now says it will meet the 25,000 goal by March 1.
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Canada and the U.S. share the world's largest undefended international border. It stretches more than 5,520 miles across 13 states over land and water. The International Peace Garden was opened in 1932 in Bottineau, North Dakota, and the famed Peace Arch in Blaine, Washington, was dedicated in 1921 to celebrate the fact that the two countries share not only miles of border but values based on freedom and democracy.
But that was before the Syrian civil war, the Arab Spring, and mass migration of millions of Muslims out of the Middle East and Africa into Europe and North America.
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Congress spent much of last year debating the merits of President Obama's plans to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees. FBI Director James Comey testified on Oct. 1 saying it was virtually impossible to screen the vast majority of people who show up at United Nations' refugee camps claiming to be Syrians. But in the end House Speaker Paul Ryan and the Republican Congress decided to fully fund the president's expanded refugee program.
Now the Senate Homeland Security Committee is asking questions about Canada's even more aggressive Syrian refugee program and how it might affect U.S. security.
Only 300 border agents on duty
The committee held a hearing Wednesday where it was revealed that the northern border is severely undermanned.
Only 300 U.S. border agents are working at the Canadian border at any given time, said Dean Mandel, a U.S. Border Patrol agent assigned to the Buffalo sector.
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That compares to more than 2,000 agents patrolling the southern border with Mexico at any moment in time.
"We have one agent for every linear mile on our southern border and one for every 13.5 miles on our northern border," Mandel said, adding that the northern border also has far fewer cameras and other technological infrastructure in place.
Montana alone has a 550-mile border with Canada, much of it rugged terrain and not monitored. Michigan, New York and Ohio have borders that include vast expanses of water.
And now Trudeau's government plans to expedite the process of screening and integrating tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
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"There is a significant controversy over Canada's plan to accept 25,000 refugees from Syria. Can we meet this risk? Canada is a diverse nation and has a Muslim population three times our own on a per capita basis," said Mandel, who was testifying on behalf of the National Border Patrol Council.
Visa waiver program presents risk
Mandel said the visa waiver agreement the U.S. has with Canada presents a special risk.
"The visa waiver system is a huge security gap, because it is based on the assumption that if you are from Canada, a friendly country, you are no security risk," he said.
"And database background checks are only as good as the database itself, which we found out in the San Bernardino (terrorist) case," he said, referring to the fact that jihadist Tashfeen Malik entered the U.S. by passing through a visa background check.
"Many terrorists are simply not in the database," he said. "We have failed to properly invest in our northern border. So we are gambling …relying so heavily on a foreign government concerns me. The Paris attack was launched right under the noses of Belgium security."
More agents in El Paso than entire northern border
Mandel advised the Senate that manpower be beefed up on the northern border.
"The problem here is we simply don't have enough manpower. We have more agents in El Paso (Texas) than on the entire northern border," he said. "We have an almost complete reliance on Canadian law enforcement for our security."
David Harris, director of INSIGNIS Strategic Research, an international intelligence firm based in Ottawa, also expressed grave concern about the infusion of so many Syrian refugees into Canada over such a short period of time.
Sending 25,000 Syrians to Canada would be the equivalent of sending 225,000 to the United States, he said.
"FBI Director James Comey has highlighted the difficulties the U.S. would have screening just 10,000 refugees," Harris told the committee. "How likely is it that Canada could adequately screen two and a half times that many in just three months?"
Confirmed ISIS infiltrators in U.N. camps
He also reminded the committee that a Lebanese cabinet minister warned in 2015 that about 2 percent of those seeking refuge in United Nations refugee camps in his country are connected to the Islamic State or ISIS.
"And Canada is accepting refugees from Lebanese camps," Harris said. "If 2 percent had a favorable view of ISIS, how many more might have similar views of al-Qaida or al-Nusra Front?"
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., also represents a state with a vast unpatrolled border.
"Anyone can come across the border. It's just very porous," she said. "...But we need more people, and we need more resources if we are going to have situational awareness on our border."
It has been suggested in Canada that the risks can be mitigated by limiting refugee eligibility to children and families "but people lie about their age," Harris said.
U.S. not prepared
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., wasted no time asking what was being done to protect the northern border.
"With tens of thousands of new individuals arriving in Canada, what is in place to assure they aren't crossing the border into the United States?" she said. "And isn't that going to put more pressure on local agents?"
Mandel said the Border Patrol is not prepared to meet the challenge.
"We need more communication, more intel, because it only takes one or two to come across and they can do a lot of damage, a lot of damage," he said. "More communication and more focus, more awareness of what's going on there, the happenings, our agents I think need to be aware of that."
'Demonization of Jews'
Another issue is how Shariah-compliant Muslims from Syria will treat women, homosexuals and Jews in their adopted Western country.
"There are safety issues for existing North American minorities, by unassimilated people from countries where the demonization of Jews is a matter of national policy," Harris said. "What about LGBTs?"
Canada's elected leaders, like those in the U.S., have stressed that Canada has a history of taking in people seeking refuge from persecution and war. Panelists Wednesday pointed to the Vietnamese boat people and the flight of Jews out of Europe following World War II.
"But the boat people were brought in over a period of a decade, so that presents a significant difference," Harris said.
Laura Dawson, who directs the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and once worked in the resettlement industry with her church, said the word "expedited" is not the proper term to describe the fast-tracked Canadian refugee acceptance program.
"I would say 'enhanced' or 'expanded' are better ways to describe it," she said.
The 'crown jewel' of Trudeau's platform
But Guidy Mamann, a senior partner at the security firm of Mamann, Sanddaluk & Kingwell in Toronto, bristled at that notion.
"It's going very, very fast, and we're asking people to do things they've never done before, with time frames they've never worked under before," Mamann told the committee. "This was the crown jewel of the prime minister's platform. These men and women are going to be under tremendous pressure to get the job done. My concern is when people are fatigued they are not going to be as effective. Not that they are going to be cutting corners but that fatigue will be a factor."
Harris cited a study by the Center for Immigration Studies, previously reported by WND, which found that the U.S. could help 12 Syrian refugees in the Middle East for what it costs to permanently resettle one in America.
Mamann said the challenges of permanently resettling 50,000 Syrians in Canada cannot be overstated.
"This is not a rescue mission this is a resettlement program. They're already in camps where the U.N. is protecting them from danger," he said, adding that the pressure on security personnel to complete the screening process by the target date is enormous.
"It's an unprecedented volume of work that has to be done in record time," Mamann said. "Canada closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012, so any information we have (on the refugees) is old."
The decision to accept only families, women and children, not single men is key. "This will help but not solve the problem," he said. "Remember we had the Boston (Marathon) bombers who came to the U.S. as small boys."
The 50,000 Syrians who will eventually be resettled in Canada will be able to enter U.S. ports of entry without a visa – meaning no background checks are required – within four years of their arrival in Canada, Mamann said.
Syria is widely considered to be a hotbed of terrorist activity, he said, which cannot be glossed over.
They come to Canada or the U.S. because they are assigned to those countries by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, not because it was their choice, Mamann said.
"Whether they adopt our values is something that will be determined over time and we have no way of knowing," he continued.
"The cause is a good one, but having said that there are unavoidable costs and risks associated with this program," Mamann said. "Our government (in Canada) believes they are manageable."
He said Canada has deployed 500 immigration agents to the Middle East to start screening refugees.
"They're not going to Syria. They are outside the country. The question here is how to verify the information, how do you validate what someone tells you?" Mamann said. "You take an iris scan or fingerprints and nothing shows up (in the database). That tells you nothing about what side they're on and for which side they may have fought."
Canada requires citizens to privately sponsor each refugee, which many on the Senate panel agreed is a better system than the U.S. employs for making sure the new arrivals get assimilated into their adopted homeland.
But so far only 10,000 of the 25,000 will get these private sponsors because not enough Canadians have volunteered to sponsor Syrian families.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked how many border agents Canada deploys at any given time along its border with the U.S.
"I would suspect it's a lot less than that, less than 300," Harris said.
And as for response times?
"Canada, their reaction time is good but it could be better. Sometimes the time can be…" Mandel said, shaking his head.
Tester also asked about visa waivers.
Mandel says the system lacks comprehensiveness.
"If they've overstayed their visa and they're doing something nefarious, it doesn't alert me. So a lack of comprehensiveness from our side is a concern," he said.
"How do we know the wife is really the wife and the kids are really the kids in case there are no records?" Tester asked.
Dawson, the former refugee resettler, said that isn't a major concern.
"We are dealing with people who are in the most low-risk demographic, these are people who are in refugee camps, you can never eliminate risk but these are
Mamann said the 6,000 Syrians who entered Canada by Dec. 31 were "the easy cases" because they were already in the U.N. pipeline.
"Now the question is the remainder are people who may or may not have been selected and the background checks may not have been started," he said.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, asked about potential problems coming across Lake Erie in Ohio.
Mandel said it's much more complicated on the northern border because of the tourist attractions at Niagara Falls and Lake Erie.
"On the northern border, with Niagara Falls and Lake Erie, the border is the attraction," he said. "The communication could always improve between us and Canada. It's very good, but the clutter, the amount of people that are there. It's a lot to keep track of."
Portman was concerned.
"If Canada does have a more aggressive refugee program, and is not doing the same level of vetting that the U.S. would do, then that puts us at risk," he said.
Portman said the CIS study about the costs of resettling refugees vs. the costs of helping refugees where they are in the Middle East should be seriously considered.
We can support one refugee here versus 12 overseas in the Middle East. So it (resettlement) is a drop in the bucket … I think this is something we have to focus on more, how do you get these countries in the Middle East to resettle more refugees, and finally, how do you keep them home? The answer, if you ask them, is 'I want to go home.' These people don't want to leave their home. So we have to look at, how do you keep people from having this radicalization environment by keeping them at (or near) their home overseas?"
Mamann said only 6 percent of refugees take up the offer to come to Canada.
"You're absolutely right. It's not their first choice. Could that money be better used overseas and help even more people, provide proper shelter, education, and eliminate whatever terrorist risks, there is a discussion to be had about that. That needs to take place, as allies and partners."
The resettlement of 25,000 Syrians will cost $1.2 billion Canadian dollars.
"That's a lot of money," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc. "And Shariah law is not compatible with Western democracies… that is something that is never really mentioned but needs to be taken into consideration."
"We've taken our eyes off the northern border. Let's look at what the challenges are," said the Democrat senator from North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp. "The refugees that come get a permanent resident card, which requires a visa application. So on a point of entry, a person from Syria would not be given access until they went through the visa system. One of the great gaps we've found in our system is the visa waiver system. Every expert panelist we've brought in, has told us this. So what is Canada doing about this visa waiver program? If someone says they want to come as a student or a tourist?"
Mamann said it's simple.
"If you're a French national you just jump on a plane and head to Canada," he said. "We make an assumption that a person coming from that country, as a friendly country, is not a risk. There is no system in place to require a visa if a person has been in Iraq or Syria over the last five years."
Most terrorists don't have negative records, he said.
"If you look back at 9/11. A person who has a clean record, that's the person who is going to be a problem," he said.