Photo: Freight Waves


Part of an ongoing series from the Wilson Center*

There are many social and economic ties that bind the United States, Canada and Mexico. Certainly, our integrated supply chains, multinational businesses and linkages between families and friends spread throughout the continent undergird the relationship. It is our borders, however, that literally serve as the ties that bind us. The extent to which those borders enable goods, people and services to flow between the three countries drives much of our ability not only to remain competitive on a global stage, but also to pursue an integrated North America.

North America has long benefited from various networks of cross-border collaboration. Undoubtedly, this includes policies enacted at the highest level of government, such as trusted traveler and trader programs, preclearance processes and, of course, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) itself, which directly addresses many aspects of cross.border trade.

However, there is an even more successful history of collaboration at the sub-national scale, pursued by regional borderland communities. These networks consist of local, regional, state, provincial  stakeholders from the public, private and academic sectors. They live and work in the space where the rubber meets the road and are often the source of innovation that drives national policies that help advance the competitiveness of North America.

Several examples are the Cross-Border Express that enables pedestrians to access the Tijuana Airport from San Diego and vice versa, the Trusted Traveler programs that provide expedited passage for people traveling across the Canada-U.S. border and the U.S.-Mexico border and the Enhanced Driver’s License for land and sea travel across both U.S. borders. These programs, which originated at the regional scale and were advocated by subnational entities, help to integrate the people and goods of North America by thinning the border, enabling greater business and manufacturing efficiencies while also improving our quality of life and meeting security priorities.

Despite their obvious contributions to North American competitiveness, many regional cross-border networks remain ad hoc, underfunded and siloed. All three national governments should strategically leverage these networks, identify partners at the subnational scale and collaborate with them to advance common goals. For example, frameworks such as the North American Leaders Summit could tap on subnational networks such as the Pacific Northwest Economic Region to continue to drive agenda items rather than letting them languish.

The need for political engagement at the highest levels is especially critical as we emerge from the pandemic without a bilateral or a tri lateral border policy accord. Without the political will and capacity to align border processes, we risk exacerbating the “thickness” of the border.

Already we are facing increased barriers to crossing the border, evidenced through longer wait-times, reduced volumes and increasingly misaligned requirements. For example, the United States recognizes the Cansino vaccine, which was used to inoculate educators in Mexico, but Canada does not. Canada requires the digital submission of a trip manifest prior to arrival, while the United States and Mexico do not. The gaps between these approaches, which are new to our post-pandemic environment, are creating confusion and suppressing travel, which fractures our connectivity.

A strong North America requires alignment wherever possible in our border policies and management. A thicker border not only inhibits competitiveness by erecting barriers, but also dampens the soft diplomacy that is a byproduct of an efficient border. The three countries could use the work agenda created at the 2021 North American Leaders Summit (NALS) and the preparations for the next NALS to address the inconsistencies such as those flagged above.

As we emerge from the covid-19 pandemic, we face a pivotal moment for re-energizing our political focus and investment in North America. We need to mend the ties that bind us and leapfrog our border innovations cooperatively. Now is the time to fully achieve the concept of “cleared once, accepted twice” in which screening by one country is acceptable to the other, thereby avoiding duplicative inefficiencies. It is also the time to innovate and expand our trusted traveler programs, and to leverage technology for a more seamless cross-border environment together.

In order to fully achieve these goals, it is critical that we approach the border as points of connection between Canada, the United States and Mexico, rather than lines of division. Nongovernmental groups like the North American Strategy for Competitiveness and the Future Borders Coalition are actively working toward these goals. Our governments should leverage their energy, innovation and collaborative frameworks. This is not a utopian vision. It is a business case for the immense value of facilitating billions of dollars of goods, millions of travelers and countless industries and communities that depend on the efficiency of our shared borders.

LAURIE TRAUTMAN is the director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. She engages in a range of research activities focused on the Washington State-British Columbia region of the Canada-U.S. border. In addition to working with faculty and students, she collaborates with the private sector and government agencies to advance policy solutions and promote cross-border collaboration. She also participates in numerous working groups that are actively engaged in the U.S.-Canada relationship, is a global fellow with the Woodrow Wilson Center and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

* The Wilson Center is offering a series of articles to take a deeper look at the potential gains of more effective collaboration across North America. Drafted and coordinated by former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne, the series includes articles by experts from the three countries making the case for why such cooperation across the continent is worthwhile, despite its complexity and difficulties. This is part of that series, which is being published in Pulse News Mexico with express prior permission from the Wilson Center.

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