Great White North

Candidates running for office in America’s northern border states have one thing in common: fear of the southern border. 

International Railroad Bridge, Niagara River
U.S. Border Patrol agent John R. Schmelzinger keeps an eye on the International Railroad Bridge that spans the Niagara River connecting Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York, on June 6, 2006.

Photo by Mike Groll/Reuters

What’s the weirdest thing about this year’s elections? Maybe it’s the panic over Ebola. Maybe it’s the chorus of Republicans touting birth-control pills. Maybe it’s the parade of Democrats bragging about their guns.

That’s all pretty strange. But the weirdest thing, in my book, isn’t any of these. It’s the long line of politicians pandering for votes along the border with Canada by promising to seal the border with Mexico.

Anyone genuinely concerned about terrorist infiltration of the United States would look north, not south. The FBI’s list of major terrorism cases includes several with Canadian roots. In 1999, a would-be bomber was caught crossing the border from British Columbia to Washington state. In 2004, Canadian Mounties helped the FBI bust a Saudi money launderer who thought he was financing a Hezbollah operation linked to Little Rock, Arkansas, and Montreal. In 2007, three men were convicted of participating in a jihadist cell that “operated from many cities in the United States and Canada.”

The FBI doesn’t mention Mexico in connection with a single case on the list. But that hasn’t stopped politicians in our northernmost states from ignoring Canada and ranting instead about security threats to the south. Why? Because border security, as a campaign issue, is a fraud. It’s not about security. It’s about playing on fears of Latin Americans. Here’s a cross-country tour of the demagoguery.

Minnesota, Aug. 14. Two days after winning the Republican primary, Senate candidate Mike McFadden calls on Sen. Al Franken to reconvene Congress to address the crisis in Texas. “We have a humanitarian and security crisis along our southern border,” says McFadden. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that McFadden issued the statement “from north-central Minnesota.”

Washington, Oct. 6. Republican Clint Didier, running for Congress in a district that covers more than 100 miles of the Canadian border, releases an ad about border security. “National security begins at home, on the border,” Didier warns as short-sleeved Latinos stroll across the screen. “Criminals from all over the world are sneaking in.” As the video continues, a border volunteer, identified as a Texas rancher, describes a scene: “This is a coyote leading a group of Middle Easterners into our country.” Didier concludes: “ISIS is already in Juarez. How long till they hit us?”

Idaho, Oct. 6. During a campaign debate, Republican Sen. Jim Risch pulls out a bar graph. “Look at what President Obama did,” he fumes, holding up the sheet for the cameras. “This is a chart of unaccompanied children entering the United States illegally. … The numbers have skyrocketed since 2012 with people pouring in here. This has got to stop.”

Idaho, Oct. 9. Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador is asked why he hasn’t done more in office. He responds by pointing to House-passed legislation that would facilitate deportations and National Guard deployments along the Mexican border. “Just two months ago we had a big debate about immigration in Congress, about what was happening at the border,” he says. “It was because of me and because of my leadership that we actually passed something.”

Michigan, Oct. 15. The GOP’s Senate nominee, Terri Lynn Land, releases an ad outlining her agenda. It shows a patrol vehicle cruising along a desert border fence, followed by a video clip of ISIS fighters. “Congress and the president have failed,” says Land, narrating the ad. “They spent too much. Our border isn’t secure. And they’ve made America less safe.” She ends with three calls to action. The first is: “Let’s secure the border.”

Maine, Oct. 16. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican and former state treasurer, is running for Congress in the second district, which spans more than 600 miles of the Canadian border. (Maine is also the state from which Mohammed Atta embarked on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.) During a debate, Poliquin is asked what the government should do to control Ebola. He replies:

We must secure our borders. This becomes not only a national security issue, but also a health care issue. And here’s an example where I just differ from [my opponent]. She believes in amnesty for students that are here illegally. I don’t. This is our country. We need to make sure we control our borders, so we know who’s coming in. It’s not only a jobs issue. It’s a public health issue and a national security issue.

Montana, Oct. 20. Rep. Steve Daines, the GOP’s Senate nominee, is asked: “Do you believe that the president’s response to the ISIS threat has been adequate? And would you at some point be willing to put boots on the ground?” Daines shifts the question from Iraq to Mexico: “We need to secure our borders to ensure that we don’t have ISIS forces coming through the southern border.” Later, he adds, “Border security needs to be our first priority. We must secure the borders for the threats of ISIS and other terror groups, for the threats of Ebola, and long term, for the national security of this nation.”

New Hampshire, Oct. 21. Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown, who has railed for months about the Mexican border, is asked in a debate:

You have suggested that the Islamic militant group ISIS could come across the U.S. border—in fact, saying that it’s the most “obvious pathway for terrorists to enter our country.” What is the evidence for that assertion? The only time we’ve had terrorists come across the border has been north of the border.

Brown doubles down:

When you’re talking about how people come into the United States, we have evidence … [of] people coming through the border illegally. … They [ISIS] have made it very clear that they want to plant a flag in the White House. …. Our goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen. And the clearest way to handle that is to make sure we close the border. I voted to secure the border on a couple of occasions and send troops to the border. Sen. Shaheen has stood with President Obama and has not done that.

The following day, a gunman attacks the Canadian parliament and kills a soldier. “There was a terrorist attack in Canada, right across the border from New Hampshire,” Wolf Blitzer asks Brown. “What additional security measures, if any, should be taken along New Hampshire’s northern border with Canada?” Again, Brown changes the subject:

Obviously, we need to take any and all precautions, to make sure that we use vigilance and diligence when we’re obviously looking to have enhanced border security. And that’s another reason why we need to get a strong immigration policy. That’s why we need to make sure that we not only deal with our northern border, but our southern borders.

It’s easy to find more of this cynicism in districts that face Canada, from Washington to Ohio to New York. Candidates who talk about border security aren’t focused on ISIS or making America safe. They’re tapping into voter anxiety about Mexicans and Guatemalans polluting American culture and taking American jobs. If politicians up north really believed what their ads say—that national security begins at home—that’s where they’d be looking for it.