OTTAWA - Just exactly who's allowed into North America -- and how long they can stay -- could be heavily influenced by the complex web of initiatives known as the Security and Prosperity Partnership.

Canada, the United States and Mexico are collaborating on more than a dozen traveller security programs that fall under three umbrellas: creating trusted border documents, developing compatible immigration measures and sharing information on high-risk travellers.

The goal is to ensure none of the three countries is a weak link in the continental security chain.

While Ottawa, Washington and Mexico City say this will make citizens safer, critics charge it is a secretive bid to bolster the corporate agenda without public or parliamentary debate.

The three countries are:

  • Working on biometric systems -- incorporating unique identifiers like iris scans and fingerprints -- to improve the security for passports, visas, permanent resident cards, transportation credentials and other border documents.
  • Implementing immigration measures that include requirements for admission and length of stay, visa decision-making standards, border lookout systems for wanted individuals, and the possibility of entry and exit procedures, and
  • Devising ways to share data on high-risk travellers such as suspected terrorists and other criminals.

Dozens of other initiatives deal with aviation, cargo and maritime security, protection of crops and livestock, and increased law-enforcement and intelligence co-operation.

In many ways, the march toward trilateral collaboration on these issues began with a path laid in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

The Security and Prosperity Partnership builds on the so-called smart border accord Canada and the United States signed six years ago.

One of the measures to emerge from the accord was the safe third country agreement on refugees.

Under the agreement, each country recognizes the other as a safe place to seek protection.

It means Canada can turn back potential refugees at the Canada-U.S. border on the basis they must pursue their claims in the United States, the country where they first arrived.

Canada says that is only fair. Canadian refugee advocates strenuously oppose the deal, arguing the United States is not always a safe country for people fleeing persecution.

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, says there's a concern that refugee protection is "left off the table'' when borders are harmonized.

He fears the trilateral talks could see a similar safe country deal established between Mexico and the United States.

"The problem is that these policies simply don't provide the kinds of exceptions and allowances made to ensure that people who have very valid and legitimate protection concerns get the safety they need,'' Neve said.

One woman who travelled to Canada to voice opposition to the Security and Prosperity Partnership pointed to her journey as evidence of curbs on civil liberties.

Ann Wright, an anti-war activist and retired U.S. State Department official, said she was questioned for three hours by immigration officials at the Ottawa airport because of her "peaceful, non-violent arrest'' for protesting in the United States.

At a news conference held by the Council of Canadians, Wright said she paid $200 for a three-day temporary visa to enter Canada "for activities in my own country that threaten no one.''