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Border workers push for biometric screening in perimeter security plan with U.S.

OTTAWA -- Canada's front-line border officers back the idea of a perimeter security arrangement with the United States, with a few caveats.

The Customs and Immigration Union wants more intensive screening of travellers, including a biometric face-recognition tool to pinpoint security threats and wanted criminals.

And it's pushing for an end to closures and reduced hours at land-border crossings.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama have signed an agreement that could lead to a formal North American security perimeter.

The union's submission, part of a federal consultation on the initiative, was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. Union president Ron Moran was unavailable Tuesday.

The perimeter arrangement is aimed at expanding joint operations on security while allowing for smoother flow of goods and people across the Canada-U.S. border. The federal government says an ambitious joint-action plan should be ready this summer.

Critics contend a border deal would endanger Canadian sovereignty and federal control of personal information.

The Customs and Immigration Union, however, sees the continental talks as a prime opportunity to implement more stringent screening at the border through new technologies.

The union, which represents Canada Border Services Agency employees, is calling for a system that would match people's faces with images in computer databases to zero in on security threats, criminal fugitives and fraudulent immigration cases.

"While this clearly needs to be done internationally, there is a special need for joint information databases of such persons to be readily available to officers at the Canada-U.S. border,'' the submission says.

The union's suggestion is consistent with the Canada-U.S. February declaration on the perimeter plan which, though lacking in detail, refers to "combined Canadian and United States screening efforts'' and "matching of biometrics that enable the sharing of information on travellers in real time.''

The union wants common continental cargo screening at North American entry points so that "suitably screened and secured cargo containers'' can be expedited for clearance at the 49th parallel.

It also advocates exit controls -- the matching of information about people leaving Canada with databases to identify those wanted on criminal or deportation warrants. The Canada-U.S. declaration envisions such a system, saying the countries will work toward the exchange of information such that "documented entry into one country serves to verify exit from the other country.''

The union firmly opposes the recent closure of two small border crossings in Quebec and one in Saskatchewan, along with a reduction in operating hours at four others.

"Such actions compromise domestic security and are contradictory to the joint approach wisely contemplated by the Canada-U.S. agreement at hand,'' says the submission.

The border agency maintains the moves represent a better use of public money.

The government should direct the border services agency to suspend all closures and reductions while talks with the U.S. continue, says the union.

It also wants a full border agency role in joint Canada-U.S. patrols on waterways, as well as expansion of an experimental Quebec border-patrol initiative to other communities.

The government's online consulation on the perimeter project ends Friday. Some opponents have complained the public cannot meaningfully comment on the plan based on the vague declaration issued in February.

Records recently released to The Canadian Press by the Public Safety Department through the access-to-information law provide little new information about the continental proposal, as dozens of pages have been completely censored.

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