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Owens hosts forum on border issues

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POTSDAM — Thinning the border between the United States and Canada for more efficient trade and tourism while improving security was the focus of a forum hosted Friday at Clarkson University by U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.

“This is very important to our region,” he said to more than 50 participants. “It has tremendous impact on our economy on every level.”

The forum highlighted the work of the Beyond the Border Action Plan and the Regulatory Cooperation Council and included a number of Canadian partners.

The initiatives articulate an approach that focuses on addressing threats early, easing the flow of trade, encouraging cross-border law enforcement, streamlining and promoting trusted traveler and commerce programs, simplifying and harmonizing regulations and inspection programs, trying out entry and exit pilot programs, supporting smaller business trade by reducing paperwork, modernizing the buildings and equipment needed to get the job done and working on preclearance of rail and maritime travelers, among others.

The concepts are good but require input from the ground up, said Thomas V. O’Keefe, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, Chapter 138, which represents U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees.

“On the macro level, it sounds great,” he said. “The employees have to be brought into this.”

The trend toward more efficiency while not sacrificing security is important, Mr. Owens said.

“We’re moving in the right direction, whereas in the past we weren’t moving in any direction,” he said.

People can help by reporting to elected representatives misalignments that inhibit trade, said Kevin O’Shea, assistant secretary of the Border Implementation Team Privy Council Office for the Canadian government.

“What can you do?” he asked. “Keep the pressure on in terms of appropriations.”

Follow-through has to be continual, said Mohawk Council Grand Chief Michael K. Mitchell, such as finding a way for Akwesasne Mohawks who live on the reservation to easily travel the Seaway International Bridge, which connects Ontario with Massena.

Customs officials have broached the topic of a secure pass card for tribal members several times in recent memory without result, he said.

“We never heard from them again,” he said. “The only time you listen is when we’re protesting. We’re tired of that.”

While the vast majority of people using the crossing are just trying to get home, commerce is delayed, Mr. Mitchell said.

“For your international business, we’re holding you up,” he said.

The focus for border security should be on high-risk traffic rather than all-risk, said Jayson Myers, president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.

“This is an issue that affects our economic prosperity. So much of this is common sense,” he said. “We not only trade things together. We make things together. Business needs to be there to demand the bottom line. Show me where we need to have differences in regulations.”

Improving the cross-border experience is also key to promotion of both countries because destinations are shared, said Gary S. DeYoung, executive director of the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council.

“They’re the same brand on both sides of the border,” he said. “Our first face of the nation is the border personnel. Is that a welcome? I don’t think the welcome is at the top of the list. We’ve seen improvements. In the last five or six years, those attitudes are a lot better. What people’s perceptions are is a huge issue for tourism.”

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