Last month the Department of Homeland Security made a misstep in including in its budget proposal a request for appropriations to study charging people admission for crossing the border into the United States. It does not take a study to know that charging Canadian relatives, friends, tourists, business people and shoppers a fee to enter the United States is a bad idea. I do not intend to let this half-baked idea see the light of day.
I will be fighting this on all fronts. Next week, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee I will introduce an amendment to the immigration bill, which is before the committee for bill-writing sessions that begin Thursday. My amendment would bar — outright — the implementation of this type of fee. I also am writing to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, asking her agency to shelve the idea of a study about this bad idea. And as the most senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee I am committed to ensuring that no appropriations for a border crossing fee or study will be included in the DHS budget that we will soon begin writing in the committee.
The United States and Canada have a 236-year tradition of free and open borders. That is part and parcel of our unique relationship. On both sides of the line we are proud that we have the world’s longest border between two peaceful neighbors, and the freest. Canada is the United States’ number one trading partner. Some 300,000 Canadians cross to visit the United States every day, spending about $235 million. In 2006 Canadians made 642,400 visits to Vermont, spending $115 million while they were here. In a recent year Canada bought 44 percent of Vermont’s exports, amounting to $4.9 billion and 15,700 jobs. The border crosses through communities along the 90-mile border in Vermont and Quebec and in other sections, and six airports even straddle the border in other states. Here in Vermont our economic prosperity is interwoven with Quebec’s prosperity. The Burlington International Airport depends on Quebec for nearly one-third of its passengers. Resorts like Jay Peak draw thousands of people south to Vermont every day, contributing to our local economy. And there are dozens of businesses producing goods — from IBM’s semiconductors, to Barry Callebaut’s chocolates — that depend on a free and open border to create jobs here in Vermont and in Quebec. That’s not theory; it’s a practical, daily fact of life in our state, and it’s worth keeping and defending. A new fee on these activities would threaten the core of our economy.
Vermont’s border communities are inseparable from Quebec’s border communities. Our children play hockey across the border. Our fire departments respond across the border. Our families live across the border. And as my wife, Marcelle, attests — she was born in Newport to parents who emigrated to Vermont from Quebec, and she grew up speaking French and English in her home — even our languages and customs drift both ways across the border. Putting a tollbooth at the border would be akin to taxing our culture.
There are legitimate border security needs, and I have worked to make possible sensible improvements, along with the resources, staff and equipment to implement them. But like many Vermonters, I am frustrated by the overdone security strictures that have been imposed on our border communities. From requiring passports to cross borders that are staffed by our neighbors whom we know by name, to closing streets that served as arteries to our communities, to erecting interior checkpoints on I-91, DHS has made living in Vermont’s border communities more challenging. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the border services agency here in the United States, is tasked with balancing security and facilitating commerce. Slapping a penalty for visiting Vermont would not enhance security, and it would certainly deflate this vital commerce.
The steadfast men and women who serve as Border Patrol and field operations officers here in Vermont are law enforcement officers. We ask them to not only vet the people and goods that come across the border but also to be experts on the laws of international trade — all while having firearms strapped to their waists in case they come across a criminal or terrorist. We should not also ask them to be tollbooth operators.
These are exceptionally difficult budgetary times, and I understand the pressures the Department of Homeland Security is facing. I remain committed to ensuring the agency has the funds it needs to carry out its vital mission — both of securing our border, and facilitating trade. In return, I want to make sure federal laws and federal agencies respect the more than two-centuries-old relationship that Vermont and Quebec have forged over many, many generations.
A tax for crossing the northern border? This Vermonter is emphatically saying “no.”
Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, is Vermont’s senior U.S. senator. He is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which begins writing a comprehensive immigration reform bill next week. He lives in Middlesex.
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