'It's very quiet': How will the U.S.-Canada border reopening impact cross-border crime?

Elizabeth Murray
Burlington Free Press

Businesses of all types have been impacted by the closure of the U.S.-Canada border during the COVID-19 pandemic — including, it seems, ones that are criminal. 

In fact, both U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Vermont have seen fewer cases of cross-border criminal activity in the approximately 15 months that the border has been closed.

The border closed in March 2020 for non-essential travel because of the spread of COVID-19 during the global pandemic. U.S. and Canadian officials had not reached an agreement as of June 17 as to when the border would officially reopen. The two countries had continued monthly extensions of the closure, the next deadline of which was set for June 21, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Canada and the U.S. have agreed to extend their agreement to keep the border closed to non-essential travel to June 21 during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the border has been closed, at least one cafe owner in Derby Line said she hasn't seen a big difference in the presence of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in the border town. Federal agencies in the U.S. and Canada declined to speculate what the impact on cross-border crimes will be once the border reopens. 

"There's now very, very little that happens here on the border," said Jane McIntyre, owner of Jane's Cafe in Derby Line. "It's very quiet." 

One thing is certain, however: when the border reopens, cross-border travel will increase, at least through official ports of entry. McIntyre said she looks forward to that return to normal.

"We'll just all be glad when our friends can cross both ways and come back to the cafe and we'll have a little bit better business going on," McIntyre said.

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How has the U.S.-Canada border closure impacted cross-border crime? 

U.S. and Canadian officials were able to give few specifics as to how cross-border criminal activity has been impacted over the last 15 months. 

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police division in Quebec, which borders Vermont, part of New York and other states, has seen no noted differences in its investigations or in the presence of people committing criminal activity, such as illegally crossing the border into Canada, between ports of entry, said Cpl. Genevieve Byrne.

On the U.S. side, cross-border crime has also continued in the Swanton sector, which includes Vermont and New Hampshire in addition to several counties in New York, said Steve Bansbach, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"People continue to make illegal entries from Canada into the United States between the ports of entry," Bansbach wrote in an email. "Organized human and drug smuggling have also continued."  

A border patrol agent looks over security screens in the command center in Swanton. The Swanton sector encompasses the U.S.-Canada border with Vermont, New Hampshire and northern New York.

However, there has been a noted drop in the number of arrests and contacts with deportable non-citizens since the border closed, Bansbach said. 

According to data provided by Bansbach, there were 574 arrests or contacts with deportable non-citizens between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 30, 2020. During the same period the year prior, that number was almost double: 1,056. More recent data than September 2020 for the Swanton sector was not yet available, Bansbach said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Vermont also brought fewer border-related criminal cases in 2020 than it did in past years, spokesman Kraig LaPorte said. He was unable to provide more specific details.

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Vermont is ahead of other border states in pandemic fight

As of June 17, it was still unclear how and when the border between U.S. and Canada would reopen, or whether that reopening would occur in several phases. For Vermonters, this likely felt odd since things started going back to normal around the state in mid-June due to its high vaccination rate against COVID-19.

Vermont's progress against the pandemic is ahead of many other states along the U.S.-Canada border. As of June 16, Vermont had given at least one dose of the vaccine to 80.6% of its population of people 12 and older. According to the Mayo Clinic, this works out to just over 72% of the state's total population. 

Two United States-Canada border signs long hanged in the Nelson Country Store in Norton, Vt.

Neighboring New York has one of the higher rates of vaccination in the U.S. as well, coming in as number 15 in the U.S. with 58.3% of its total population with at least one dose of the vaccine.

Several border states lag way behind Vermont's and New York's progress, according to Mayo Clinic data, including: 

  • Idaho, where 38.7% of the state's total population has gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. Idaho is the fifth least-vaccinated state in the U.S.
  • North Dakota, where 43.1% of the state's total population has gotten at least one dose. 
  • Montana, where 46.7% of the state's population has gotten at least one dose. 

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What will happen once the northern U.S. border reopens?

Byrne of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police did not say what they expected to happen once the border reopened. 

However, Byrne wrote in an email, "The RCMP has continuously maintained its posture throughout the border closure and will adjust accordingly to any changes in trends and tactics when the border reopens."

LaPorte also said he was unable to speak to impacts or expectations at the border. 

In this Wednesday, July 11, 2018 photo, two children, visiting the Haskell Library with their grandmother from Venezuela, play on the border pillar, as they circle back and forth between the United States and Canada under the watchful eye of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, seated in a vehicle, in Derby Line. The entrance to the library the family were visiting is in Vermont and while the boundary line with Canada goes right through the center of the building.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Bansbach said the agency expects that resuming normal border crossing operations may also increase criminal activity. However, Bansbach said the federal agency is up for the challenge. 

"Illegal smugglers and traffickers can blend in with legitimate border-crossers," Bansbach said. "Nevertheless, Swanton Sector is prepared to meet this challenge as a return to baseline operations."

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Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or emurray@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.