AMONG THE broad changes that 9/11 brought to American politics, surely the least contentious should have been the "smart border" agreement that Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge signed with the Canadian government. Yet tucked away among the noncontroversial and useful recommendations for higher-tech checkpoints and more cooperation on customs fraud is a small clause that will cause unnecessary hardship for some people and unnecessary paperwork for others. The difficulty is the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires refugees applying for political asylum to lodge their applications in the first "safe country" they manage to reach. Because few people -- perhaps 200 a year -- travel to the United States to claim asylum after reaching Canada, the largest group affected will be the estimated 6,000 to 15,000 people who arrive in the United States annually, manage to gain entry and then travel to the Canadian border to claim asylum. Generally speaking, most do so because, while it is much easier to find a flight to the United States, it is much more pleasant to claim asylum in Canada, where benefits for asylum-seekers are more generous. In addition, many also prefer to go to Canada because they have friends or relatives in one of the many well-organized Canadian ethnic communities. The Canadians have been trying to change this system for many years, largely to reduce their enormous backlog of asylum applications. Until now, the U.S. government has refused, largely because it didn't want to increase its own backlog of asylum applications.
In principle, the United States is right to make some concessions to Canada, which has gone a long way toward harmonizing its visa policy with that of the United States and has agreed to cooperate on a host of other important border issues. In practice, this agreement will add to the caseload of the Immigration and Nationalization Service at a time when the INS is in turmoil, and it may well increase the number of illegal border crossings. Far better, over time, to allow asylum-seekers landing in the United States or Canada to choose where they would like their cases to be heard and let them proceed to the other country if they prefer. This might encourage the Canadians to align their system more closely with U.S. practice, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If the U.S.-Canadian border is to remain as open and transparent as it is today, the visa, asylum and immigration regimes of both countries will inevitably become more similar, not more different.