Canada-US border in spotlight before Secretary Kelly visit

A series of recent incidents at the US border has led to questions in Canada over whether people are facing more scrutiny and tougher measures at the international boundary. The answer is not entirely clear.

Canadian Fadwa Alaoui had planned a quick trip to the United States in early February for a day of shopping in Vermont.

She did not expect to be turned away after a four-and-a-half hour ordeal.

Ms Alaoui’s case is one of a handful of reports of Canadians facing border troubles in recent months.

The individual cases have raised concerns over how people are being treated at the frontier and have become a political issue, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau facing questions about it in the House of Commons.

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is expected to raise the matter with US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who will be in Ottawa on Friday accompanied by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) acting commissioner.

But it is difficult to pin down whether stories like Ms Alaoui’s are part of a trend or are just receiving more attention after US President Donald Trump’s tough border talk.

On 4 February Ms Alaoui, a dual Canadian-Moroccan citizen, loaded her two young children into the car and, along with an adult cousin, headed to the Vermont border.

She said the border agent had the usual questions at first, like why she was travelling to the US and how long she planned to stay.

But the group was pulled aside for additional screening and asked for their phones and passwords. When she was interviewed again, the queries were of a different nature.

“Most of the questions were about my religion, if I’m Muslim, if I practise, the name of my mosque and how often I go,” she said. “He asked me about my view, my opinion about President Trump. That kind of question.”

They were eventually denied entry, though Ms Alaoui was travelling on her Canadian passport and had previously entered the US without problem.

That same month, Canadian student athlete Yassine Aber, heading to Boston for a track-and-field competition, told media he was questioned about his Muslim faith, recent travel and his origins, and turned back.

In late February, Afghanistan-born family doctor Sardar Ahmad told the Sarnia Observer he was detained for five hours at a Michigan crossing. Mr Ahmad had planned to cross the border to see why his Nexus pass, used by low-risk, pre-approved travellers for faster travel, had been revoked. He told the newspaper he was eventually cleared to enter but chose not to.

This month, Manpreet Kooner said she was denied entry at a Vermont crossing and told she needed an immigrant visa to enter – a request that even seemed to puzzle the US embassy in Ottawa, given her Canadian citizenship.

In all instances, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said it does not comment on individual cases for privacy reasons.

Conservative MP Tony Clement called Ms Kooner’s case “bizarre” and said it is important to raise instances like these with American officials.

But the opposition MP said it is tough to tell whether they are part of a trend.

“Based on my experience as an MP for the past 11 years, this does happen,” he said. “It’s difficult to say whether this is a new phase or whether we are all watching very closely the political events in the US.”

According to figures provided by CBP, the number of people being denied entry at the international boundary is in line with previous years.

In fiscal year 2014, 28,875 people were turned away at the Canada-US frontier. In 2015 it was 27,311. In 2016, it was 28,584.

A spokesman for the CBP also said that fewer travellers underwent secondary processing, electronic media searches and were found inadmissible in February 2017 compared to February 2016.

In a typical day in 2016, over one million travellers are “processed” at all US border points of entry. About 750 people are deemed inadmissible under a list of more than 60 possible grounds.

In response to questions from the BBC about border concerns, Department of Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan said that CBP took “allegations of misconduct or mistreatment” seriously.

“Our officers treat everyone professionally and humanely and don’t engage in racial profiling,” he said.

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Howard Greenberg said cases like Ms Alaoui’s “appear to be anomalies” but that in “an extreme vetting world” travellers should be able to clearly explain why they want to cross the border and to have all necessary documentation at hand.

“This is a wake-up call that there is higher vigilance at the border,” he said.

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, said sometimes cases do raise concerns that someone was treated inappropriately but that “there are 400,000 people that go across the Canadian and American border every day and there have always been a number refused for various reasons”.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is working on Ms Alaoui’s case, though a representative said the organisation is still trying to pin down the details. Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy is also making inquiries with CBP.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it is monitoring the border situation and, while they have not received an uptick in complaints about people being stopped and searched, they have noticed “a great deal of apprehension in general” about crossings. Minorities are more likely to report having trouble.

Meanwhile, Ms Alaoui said she would have let the whole matter slide except for the fact her elderly father lives in Chicago.

“They reason why I speak about it is I have reason to go there. I have family there,” she said. “Otherwise if someone told me ‘you’re not welcome to my house’ than you’re not going again and that’s it.”

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