Canadians Report More Scrutiny And Rejection At U.S. Border Checkpoints | KERA News

Canadians Report More Scrutiny And Rejection At U.S. Border Checkpoints

Mar 29, 2017
Originally published on March 29, 2017 10:56 pm

Church volunteers on their way from Ontario to New Jersey were stopped at the U.S.-Canada border and turned away.

So were Canadian nurses who work at a hospital in Detroit.

Scores of Canadians say they've been refused entry at U.S. border checkpoints in recent weeks, and their stories have gotten a lot of attention.

At 4,000 miles, the U.S.-Canada line is the longest unprotected land border in the world, and it's relatively easy for Canadians to visit the U.S.; most don't require visas.

But immigration lawyers on both sides of the border say officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, have gotten more aggressive in their questioning of Canadian citizens, and about who they're letting into the country, since President Trump took office.

"Definitely things have changed on the northern border," said Heather Segal, an immigration attorney in Toronto. She said CBP agents are "denying people, erring on the side of denial, slowing people down and preventing people from getting into the United States ... with this notion by CBP that this is how they're supposed to be behaving right now."

A CBP spokeswoman declined to comment on individual cases. She did note that officers have broad discretion in deciding who gets to cross the border.

Thomas Winkowski, a former acting commissioner of CBP, says concerns about the incidents stemming from the new Trump administration may be overblown.

"It's business as usual in many regards up on the northern border," Winkowski says. "When you have an incident that happens, people start saying, 'Hey this is a result of the administration,' when in fact, it really isn't."

Some aren't taking any chances, including the Girl Guides of Canada, the equivalent of the Girl Scouts. They've cancelled field trips to the U.S. So have several school districts, including Toronto's, because school officials say they don't want to deal with students being rejected at the border.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was asked about those concerns at a press conference this week in Detroit.

"If they're in Canada legally, and they have the proper paperwork, they don't have to worry about anything," Kelly said. "I don't get it. But it's their business. And if they feel that way, that's their loss, I guess."

CBP officials say a tiny percentage of Canadians are rejected at the border. Out of 13 million visitors since October, an agency spokeswoman said, fewer than 7,000 were turned back.

Segal, the immigration attorney, says that's partly because fewer Canadians are visiting the U.S. in the first place. "It's so difficult to navigate the entrance that it creates a chilling effect — whether intended or unintended," she says.

"Why is this happening to me?"

Earlier this month Bill McLevin and his wife were stopped on their way from Calgary, Alberta, to Phoenix, where McLevin's brother-in-law owns a condo. It's a trip McLevin says he's made many times before.

But this time, CBP officers asked him a question they hadn't before: Do you have a criminal record?

Turns out that 45 years ago McLevin, who is now 66, was arrested for selling a psychedelic drug to undercover police. McLevin insists he was not a drug dealer, and that the incident was a one-time mistake. He served six months in prison, and says the Canadian government pardoned him more than 30 years ago.

"They treated me like I was criminal right off the bat again, like it just happened yesterday," McLevin said. "They mug shot me, they fingerprinted me. I was in a room that was glass on all sides, and everybody in the waiting room could see this happening. It was embarrassing."

CBP officers wouldn't let McLevin into the country, and added him to their database. They told him he shouldn't try to enter the U.S. again without a special waiver that costs hundreds of dollars.

Others, like the nurses who work in Detroit, were told they had the wrong work visas. The confusion has since been cleared up. But the church volunteers never made it to the Jersey Shore, where they were planning to help Hurricane Sandy victims who are still rebuilding their homes.

Then there's the story of Manpreet Kooner, who lives in Montreal. She said she was stopped at the U.S. border this month and told she had to have a visa to enter. Kooner says she's a law-abiding citizen of Canada, so there's no apparent reason she needs one to visit as a tourist.

"Honestly, I wanted to just go to Vermont with my girlfriends for like a day getaway," Kooner said in an interview with the Canadian TV network Global News.

"I've asked the officers, 'Why is this happening to me?' " Kooner told Global News. "And nobody can give me an answer. They tell me that they're not entitled to tell me."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It is still the longest unprotected land border in the world, but it might be getting harder to cross from Canada into the U.S. In recent weeks, scores of Canadians say they've been turned back at border checkpoints, and that's causing some frustration in Canada. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Bill McLevin and his wife were driving from Calgary, Alberta, to Phoenix, Ariz., where his brother-in-law owns a condo earlier this month, a trip McLevin says he's made many times before.

BILL MCLEVIN: I have flown down a couple of times, and I have gone through Montana Sweetgrass border crossing three or four times.

ROSE: Did you ever have any trouble before?

MCLEVIN: I've never ever had a trouble before. But they've never asked me that question. Have you a criminal record?

ROSE: Bill McLevin is 66 years old. Back when he was 20, he was arrested for selling a psychedelic drug to undercover police. McLevin insists he was not a drug dealer, that the incident was a one-time mistake. He served six months in prison. He says the Canadian government pardoned him more than 30 years ago. But under U.S. law, that doesn't matter. U.S. Customs and Border Protection wouldn't let McLevin into the country and put him in their database.

MCLEVIN: They treated me like I was a criminal right off the bat again like it just happened yesterday. The mug shot me. They fingerprinted me. It was embarrassing.

HEATHER SEGAL: Yeah, definitely, things have changed on the northern border.

ROSE: Heather Segal is an immigration lawyer in Toronto. Until recently, she says, it was easy for Canadians to visit the U.S. - most don't need a visa. But immigration lawyers on both sides of the nearly 4,000-mile border say officers from Customs and Border Protection or CBP have gotten more aggressive in their questioning of Canadian citizens and about who they're letting into the country since President Trump took office.

SEGAL: Denying people, erring on the side of denial, slowing people down and preventing people from getting into the United States with this notion by CBP that this is how they're supposed to be behaving right now.

ROSE: A Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman declined to comment on individual cases, but she also notes that officers have broad discretion in deciding who gets to cross the border. Thomas Winkowski is a former acting commissioner of CBP.

THOMAS WINKOWSKI: When you have an incident that happens, people start saying, hey, this is a result of the administration when, in fact, it really isn't. It's business as usual.

ROSE: Stories about Canadians being turned back at the border have gotten lots of attention. There's the one about the church volunteers from Ontario, who are stopped on their way to New Jersey to assist victims who still need help rebuilding their homes after Hurricane Sandy, the Canadian nurses, who were briefly told they had the wrong visas to work at a hospital in Detroit, and perhaps most baffling, the story of Manpreet Kooner.

MANPREET KOONER: Honestly, I wanted to just go to Vermont with my girlfriends for like a day getaway.

ROSE: Kooner lives in Montreal. She says she was stopped at the U.S. border this month and told she had to have a visa to enter. Kooner says she's a law-abiding citizen of Canada, so there's no apparent reason she should need one to visit as a tourist. Here's Kooner speaking to Canadian TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KOONER: I've asked the officers, why is this happening to me? And nobody can give me an answer. They tell me that they're not entitled to tell me.

ROSE: Some aren't taking any chances, including the Girl Guides - Canada's equivalent of the Girl Scouts. They've canceled field trips to the U.S., so have several school districts, including Toronto's, because school officials say they don't want to deal with students being rejected at the border. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was asked about those concerns at a press conference this week in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KELLY: If they're in Canada legally and they have the proper paperwork, they don't have to worry about anything. I don't get it, but it's their business. And if they feel that way, that's their loss, I guess.

ROSE: Customs and Border Protection says a tiny percentage of Canadians are rejected at the border. Out of 13 million visitors since October, CBP says, fewer than 7,000 were turned back. But immigration lawyer Heather Segal says that's partly because fewer Canadians are visiting the U.S. in the first place.

SEGAL: It's so difficult to navigate the entrance that it creates a chilling effect.

ROSE: Segal says the reception at the northern border is chillier than it's been in decades whether that's intended or not. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.