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U.S. Worries as Canada Welcomes New Immigrants


When Canadian police arrested 17 suspects over the weekend, they say they broke up a terrorist bombing plot. They also reminded Americans of a potential threat to their north. The U.S. complains that Canada does a bad job of screening immigrants, and that in turn, could open a back door to the United States.

Richard Reynolds reports from Toronto.


Since 9/11, Americans have viewed their long and usually friendly border with Canada, with growing concern. In the days following 9/11, it was widely reported - incorrectly - that some of the terrorists had come, by ferry, from Canada. And Ahmed Rassam, who was arrested in 1999, trying to cross into the U.S. from Canada, had explosives in his car's trunk and confessed to wanting to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport.

Just last month, the U.S. State Department said, in a report, that Canada's lax screening of immigrants and refugees was a direct security threat to the United States. And just one week ago, the deputy head of Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, Jack Hooper, told a Senate committee here that only a fraction of immigrants from high-risk areas were being properly screened.

Mr. JACK HOOPER (Deputy Head, Canadian Security and Intelligence Service): In terms of the proportion of immigrants flowing from a region - say the Pakistan/Afghanistan region - over the last five years something in the order of 20,000 immigrants - we're in a position probably to vet one tenth of those.

REYNOLDS: Canada's immigration department tried to back away from those comments later in the week, saying the 10 percent being screened were the right 10 percent - having being selected for vetting by frontline immigration officers.

But not everyone here agrees the system is functioning well, despite hundreds of millions having been spent in the past four years to beef up the system, its technology, and integrate everything with U.S. security databases.

John Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute, a security and military think tank in Toronto, says Canada's system is just plain broken.

Mr. JOHN THOMPSON (President, Mackenzie Institute): The screening system was always negligible. The system is swamped. We have over, I think, 200 thousand people a year coming in, and we just have not got the capacity to look at them all.

REYNOLDS: And that's just the immigrants who apply through normal channels. They must provide substantial documentation. Canada also deals with about 40,000 refugee claimants each year, who may not have any documents at all. Almost all of whom are allowed to work and stay here while their claim is processed - which typically takes years. That said, many, if not most of the terrorist suspects arrested in Toronto on Friday, were not immigrants at all. They were born here and went to school in Canada.

Indeed, Jack Cooper says that such homegrown terrorists are becoming more of a problem than immigrants or refugees might be.

And whether homegrown or immigrants, John Thompson says, that terrorists from Canada shouldn't even be America's biggest concern.

Mr. THOMPSON: Canada might be the back door to the United States, but you're front door through the Mexican border is wide open and the defenses are clearly swamped.

REYNOLDS: To the north, the U.S. border with Canada remains extremely porous. Almost 2,000 miles is utterly undefended. And forget about the desert that separates part of the U.S. from Mexico. There are many roads that cross the Canada/U.S. border where there is no roadblock and no customs or immigration officer. Just a phone to use to call customs or a small sign telling you where to check in with the U.S. authorities once you are already in the U.S.

From NPR News, I'm Richard Reynolds in Toronto.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Reynolds