Closed Border, closed economy, closing opportunities

The other day Tim O’Reilly tweeted about this New York Times article. Entitled – Chicago’s Loss: Is Passport Control to Blame? – the piece struck a chord with me since my last two efforts to cross into the United States from Canada have been dramatically unpleasant experiences. Turns out that others – including IOC selection committee members – feel the same way:

Among the toughest questions posed to the Chicago bid team this week in Copenhagen was one that raised the issue of what kind of welcome foreigners would get from airport officials when they arrived in this country to attend the Games. Syed Shahid Ali, an I.O.C. member from Pakistan, in the question-and-answer session following Chicago’s official presentation, pointed out that entering the United States can be “a rather harrowing experience.”

Border-SecurityHarrowing indeed! I crossed the border two weeks ago on my way to French Lick, Indiana, to attend a bio-informatics conference. I wasn’t paid to attend, and had been invited by the founders of OpenMRS to whom I occasionally volunteer some advice and just think are all around great guys who I’d do pretty much anything for. Is a conference work or pleasure? Not really either, but to be safe, I said work. Big mistake. The border security officer said he didn’t care if I was not getting paid, work is work (don’t even bother trying to explain to him what an open source community is) and he was inclined to red flag my passport and take away my TN (work) visa. It was a terrifying experience (and frankly, on the scale of what people can be accused or suspected of at the border economic issues are important but relatively less concerning than political or criminal ones – although don’t underestimate the fear generated by seeing part of ones livelihood flash before ones eyes).

All this is made worse by the fact that there is, effectively, no appeals process. Yes, maybe you can talk to somebody higher up, but the will likely take hours (long after your flight is to depart in 90 minutes) or even days (once the conference or event you intended to attend or speak at has long since ended). You are at the mercy of the person you’re in front of.

All this may sound unfortunate but it has significant implications, political and economic implications. International travel to the United States is down 10% in the first quarter of 2009 – a big part of this is likely related to the economy, but I suspect that fewer and fewer people are choosing the United States as a destination. But vacationers are minor in comparison to the impact on innovation and economic development. Today, it is harder and harder for the best minds in the world to work for American companies and to do graduate work at American universities. This means America’s elite will interact less and less with leading thinkers from elsewhere and its companies will have to rely on American talent, and not international talent, to succeed. 

Already the cracks are showing. Google has employees who are forced to work in Canada since they can’t work in the United States. And Microsoft recently opened a software development facility in Vancouver because US immigration laws made it too difficult to bring in top talent. Indeed, I’m increasingly persuaded that the new convention centre in Vancouver was a smart investment. If you are hosting a conference with Americans and internationals in attendance there is no way you are going to host it in the United States.

Do Americans understand what is going on? Probably not. While some of the above articles have appeared in the news section of the newspaper the Olympic story appeared in the Travel section – hardly the place to raise a red flag for politicians. At least the President seems to now understand that it is an issue:

President Obama, who was there as part of the 10-person team, assured Mr. Ali that all visitors would be made to feel welcome. “One of the legacies I want to see is a reminder that America at its best is open to the world,” he said.”

I hope he’s successful since the consequences of the status quo will be ugly for the United States. A closed border is like a closed mind – over time you become less receptive to new ideas or information and begin to atrophy.

72 thoughts on “Closed Border, closed economy, closing opportunities

  1. anon

    Sometimes they are not cheaper but in reality are simply better qualified. Ultimately it's the businesses that will hurt in the long run.

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  4. Matt L.

    It's even worse going BACK from Vancouver if you transit the US. Simply because Vancouver (along with a handful of other Canadian cities) have US customs control right in the Vancouver airport.When you board that plane, you're legally in the United States. You arrive at the domestic terminal in SFO, LAX, or wherever. So you not only need a transit visa, you need permission to travel to the US simply because there's no controls on the far end ensuring you don't wander off in to their country.This was a problem for my other half before she acquired her Canadian citizenship, we had to be very careful to avoid any flights that transited the US. Sadly many times the cheapest tickets to get where we wanted to go went via the US….

  5. Name

    It's not 9-11. In 1989, at the age of 16, with still one year of school to go, I was denied a visa to visit the US because I had no car or house. No financial reason tying me to Ireland, that was their reason. Like I'd ever want to live in the States.

  6. derekremund

    What's hilarious is that any of you would call this “harrowing” or “terrifying”. It's pretty obvious you've never been exposed to something more serious in nature than watching the latest CSI crapfest on TV.

  7. Ryan

    Like they are ill-defined between China and Tibet? Or Pakistan and Afghanistan? Or Kurdistan and Turkey (oh, wait). I'm guessing many of the harrowed here would wish the US approach its security problems with radical muslims and other extremist threats through law enforcement. Well – this is law enforcement. What's the police officer's quote – “everyone's a fan of law enforcement until it happens to them?”

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  9. Name

    I'm fond of traveling to the USA but the attitude and behaviour of some of the Border Guards really put a crimp in that. They have the discretion to arbitrarily deny an entry after you have gone to considerable $$ and effort to obtain a visa. To expand on what previous commented indicated why should the border guy ( after a bad day etc) get to reverse a decision in a moment that took immigration people to months to make?Most of the border guards are pretty good but the few assholes seem to over shadow them especially with the considerable arbitrary power they have.

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  11. b

    Canada isn't protective because they want to protect their people or their jobs… The Canadian Government just wants to make sure their getting their tax money and thats it. Canada Customs… those guys that wear the kevlar vests at the border their really tax men in disguise… as long as they don't think you have something they can tax you're fine.If the Canadian Government is good at anything it's collecting taxes… most government agencies close at 4pm/4:30 Revenue Canada has a hotline you can call up to 11PM EST if you have any questions regarding taxes.

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  17. mavis girl

    i have been crossing quite often as my new home (Canadian side) is 15 min from the border. Usually every weekend I don't have to work. I have been consistently crossing for the past 7 weeks. This weekend was the worst of my experiences with the border patrols. I always tell them I have an aunt sho lives in New york very close to the border (which is true) Howeve I refrain from telling them I also have a boyfriend in NY, as its my belief this would set off alarm bells, and I dont care to discuss my personal endeavours with these complete strangers. Well this female officer this past weekend, asked why I smelled so good, why I was travelling so late (9pm), who is this aunt, why I call her aunt if she is my adoptive parents sister, because that is NOT biological, why i come so often, why I am driving my dads car, why would he lend it to me so often, where my children were, why would my mother watch them, why didnt I bring them… and even more…..I feel this type of questioning is really a breach of power, I dont think it any of her business to be asking quextions about people (my children) in particular when they are not even in the car trying to cross. I feel that she was on a power trip of sorts or angry because she looks the way she does! LOL I am tempted to use a different bridge next time, not sure if they can tell that I crossed this weekend passed just at another location, does anyone know?

  18. Coinclass

    Canadian border services is organized thelt. They charged me GST/HST for that things I already owned. Time to leave Canada.!!


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