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A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer looks toward a car coming toward at the border crossing between the U.S. and Canada, in Blaine, Wash.

Elaine Thompson

There's a story from border-guard lore about the day Ahmed Ressam drove from Canada into the U.S. to detonate a bomb in Los Angeles.

Mr. Ressam - the only convicted terrorist caught trying to enter the U.S. from Canada - drove a rental car onto the ferry from Victoria to Washington State in December of 1999. U.S. border inspectors searching his car found some white powder in the trunk, and began testing it as though it were a drug. But after watching Mr. Ressam's panicked reaction to the way they were handling what turned out to be a massive explosive, they figured maybe they had something else on their hands.

In the decade since, the story of Mr. Ressam's capture has come to encapsulate everything that the task of U.S. border protection has become - a mandate that has shifted from counter-narcotics to counterterrorism, and whose biggest success stories are as likely to be the result of heightened vigilance on the part of border officers as blind luck.

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That greater emphasis on security has changed the border-crossing experience. In turn, the U.S. border officer has become the stern symbol of post-9/11 America.

The perception among many Canadians is that today's U.S. border officers are meaner. The reality is that they are likely to be younger, under more pressure and - should you give them a reason - yes, meaner.

There used to be a time when crossing the border, even amid the gridlock of a holiday weekend like this one, was a quick formality. In the age of counterterrorism, however, that's no longer the case - even though there are more border officials than ever.

There's a tendency to believe that every U.S. government agency, department and office underwent a drastic metamorphosis as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the case of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it's true. The number of border agents and customs officers has more than doubled, and continues to grow. In 2000, there were 9,000 agents; today, there are more than 19,000. Before 2001, there were about 350 agents assigned to the Canadian border; today, that number is closer to 1,500.

Earlier this year, the agency went on a 15-city hiring spree, looking to fill more than 11,000 positions, including about 3,000 customs officers, who work at the 300 or so legal ports of entry into the U.S., and 4,600 agents, who monitor everywhere else for illegal entrants.

The border patrol's recruitment budget last year alone stood at almost $40-million, money it used on everything from sporting-event sponsorships to job fairs at overseas military bases (the agency seeks out former military personnel, in part because they are already trained).

As a result of the massive recruitment drive, younger employees are making up a larger portion of the agency's front-line force.

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But the agency's size and demographics are not the only things that have changed: Its mandate also has morphed. Whereas border officers and agents used to focus much of their energy on combatting the drug trade, today the priority is unquestionably anti-terrorism, a mandate that became formal in 2003, when Customs and Border Protection became an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

"Our mission has changed," says Mucia Dovalina, public-affairs liaison officer at Customs and Border Protection's office of field operations. "It's about anti-terrorism and homeland protection. Our role has changed and is more geared towards the security of our country."

Because of that greater emphasis on security, more and more people on both sides of the border, who used to pass with ease, are encountering new obstacles.

Take information-sharing. Since Sept. 11, Canadian and American authorities have become much more thorough in sharing criminal records. The result is the digitization of files that otherwise would be collecting dust in a local police office's archives, and the subsequent banning of people who had been crossing the border hassle-free for years prior. (On average, U.S. border officials refuse entry to 614 people a day.)

"They're doing a much better job of sharing information," says Peter Rekai, a Toronto-based lawyer and specialist in immigration law. "But what's coming up now are 20- or 25-year-old impaired driving charges, or the CEO who, when he was 20, took a stop sign off the road and put it in his basement."

That problem isn't confined to just one side of the border, Mr. Rekai adds. Americans are often surprised to find they are now being flagged by Canadian officials for old drunk-driving offences, which are state-level infractions in the U.S. but federal crimes in Canada; Canadians can set off alarms because of previous marijuana-related offences, even if the charges were eventually dropped.

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Both U.S. and Canadian customs and border officers share the same philosophy - to balance security with ease of movement, says Ron Moran, national president of the Canadian Customs and Immigration Union.

But Mr. Moran says American officers actually have a technological advantage over their Canadian counterparts when it comes to thoroughly checking people's backgrounds. When a U.S. border officer scans a traveller's name, the computer automatically checks it against myriad other databases, from criminal records to customs history.

On the Canadian side, that kind of system still has not been fully implemented, Mr. Moran says.

His union is now pushing for the introduction of biometric data such as facial recognition, saying fake IDs have become so sophisticated that it can sometimes be impossible for front-line officers to weed them out.

"I'm predicting that within four or five years, biometric technology to law enforcement will be what e-mail has become to office work."

But added vigilance comes at a price. Transport Canada estimates that U.S. security regulations have added $550-million a year to the transportation industry's annual operating costs, the vast majority of that borne by cross-border trucking. Ottawa, eager not to compound the perception south of the border that Canada is soft on terrorism, has taken pains to note that cross-border security is a shared priority.

In reality, the vast majority of the U.S.'s border-related headaches come from the south. Last year, about 8,000 illegal migrants were apprehended at the U.S.-Canada border. Compare that with the more than 700,000 people caught on the U.S.-Mexico border - about 87 times as many. There's a reason why 40 of the 95 basic training days for U.S. border-patrol agents are spent learning Spanish.

Mr. Rekai says the U.S. response to illegal migrants and, more recently, violent drug cartels has inevitably led to increased security at the Canada-U.S. border.

"Some of it has been an aftershock of what's going on at the southern border," he says. "They have so upgraded the protection of the southern border that it has spilled over."

But the black-and-white world of security - the primary concern of Americans - doesn't always mix well with the world of business - the priority of Canadians. Mr. Rekai says he has heard of cases where individuals have been turned back from legitimate work opportunities either because the officer did not believe they had landed a job during this recession, or because of uncertainty over the very definition of work. (If you're a consultant meeting a client on one side of the border, but filing a report back to the other side, do you need a work permit? The answer may not always be consistent on either side of the border.)

U.S. border officers and agents have often found themselves in the position of balancing first-line defence with calls for a less confrontational attitude. Last year, U.S. Representative Norm Dicks of Washington State made headlines when he said patrol agents assigned to the Canadian border should "treat people nicely" and that their "gruffness" was turning people off.

"Professionalism is one of our core values," insists Ms. Dovalina of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "All of us take a great deal of pride treating everyone with dignity and respect."

Still, it's when things go bad that headlines are made. Most recently, there was the case of Desiderio Fortunato of Coquitlam, B.C., who was pepper-sprayed by a U.S. border guard after he demanded that the guard say "please." Public reaction ranged from anger at the border guard for not being reasonable to criticism of Mr. Fortunato for not doing as he was told.

Officials on both sides of the border have also been particularly sensitive to issues of racial profiling. In 2007, Canadian Muslim scholar and university professor Munir El-Kassem was flying to an interfaith conference when he was detained by U.S. immigration officials and subjected to such questions as whether he knew Osama bin Laden and whether he believed in Allah or God. London-area MP Glen Pearson took the issue to the House of Commons and Peter MacKay, then foreign affairs minister, eventually took it up with his U.S. counterpart, Condoleezza Rice.

While the southern side of the border may err more on the security side than ease of movement, Mr. Moran of the Canadian Customs and Immigration Union says that's justifiable, given the 2001 attacks.

"I think it takes a non-American to suggest they're going overboard," he says. "We should be as concerned as they are, but it's them it happened to.

"Imagine the [Ressam]scenario in post-9/11 world happening - if somebody gets through who should have been intercepted - the border would shut down airtight. The cost would incalculable."

Omar El-Akkad is a Globe and Mail writer based in Toronto.

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