The growing number of stories about Canadians turned away at the American border is more than just an anecdotal trend: Statistics show the United States is turning away visitors from Canada at an increasing rate.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is scheduled to meet with members of the Trudeau government in Ottawa on Friday in an encounter likely to be dominated by the growing issue of asylum seekers walking into Canada from the United States. But numbers compiled by The Globe and Mail from agencies in Canada and the United States show the border is becoming a escalating problem for southbound Canadian travellers.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents turned away 27,772 people trying to enter the United States from the northern border in 2016, an increase of 6.7 per cent from the year before despite a decrease in the overall volume of travellers. Cross-border trips by Canadians fell 9 per cent.
The overall rate of rejection at the border remains tiny, however, and could comfort the millions of Canadians who cross every year. Travellers from Canada turned away at the border represented less than .085 per cent of the 33 million cross-border trips in 2016 – a rate that remained constant to the end of the year through Donald Trump's win in the U.S. election. Statistics for 2017 are not yet available.
Canadians can be blocked from entering the United States for a host of reasons, from having a criminal record or improper travel documents to border guard suspicions they might overstay their welcome. Agents have full discretion to make on-the-spot judgment calls without any court or appeal process.
Immigration lawyers say they're hearing more complaints about cases where the rejection seems inexplicable. They've also heard about an increase in hassle at the border as people who have traditionally breezed through face interrogation and detention.
Several cases have cropped up in recent weeks, including a half-dozen people who were rejected after border agents questioned their views on Mr. Trump. A Sherbrooke student athlete with Moroccan roots who had the misfortune of once being photographed with a wannabe jihadi was turned away along with a suburban Montreal woman who was quizzed about Mr. Trump and her Muslim faith.
Bill McLevin, a 62-year-old Alberta man who had a conviction for drug dealing 40 years ago and received a pardon 10 years later, was rejected last weekend despite having crossed the border many times in the intervening decades. "This isn't just about me, it's going to affect thousands of people if they suddenly start taking a hard line," he said.
Canadian-born Manpreet Kooner was rejected last weekend at a Quebec border crossing after being told she needs a visa to enter the country. The guard even suggested she may feel she had been "Trumped" in the encounter. Ms. Kooner is of Indian descent but a Canadian citizen with a Canadian passport who has no criminal record.
She consulted Montreal immigration lawyer Stéphane Handfield who told her recourse can only be found with the American government. "But the chances of redress are very, very thin; they have enormous discretionary power," Mr. Handfield said in an interview.
The U.S. border guard union was one of the few to endorse Mr. Trump and some of his more ardent supporters on patrol at the border seem to be emboldened to take a hard line, according to Mr. Handfield and several other lawyers.
"Under Mr. Obama they had to at least watch themselves. Now the big boss not only tolerates but encourages that behaviour," Mr. Handfield said. "It's all very arbitrary and very troubling."
Vermont immigration lawyer Leslie Holman said she suspects the problem is more about confusion and lack of direction than politics. She's getting calls from frequent travellers who "are scared to cross the border. There does appear to be racial profiling going on, but look at the orders they were given."
Within days of taking office, Mr. Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from entering the United States, sowing confusion at border crossings and leaving visa holders in limbo. The order was suspended in court. Earlier this week, he delivered a similar edict targeting a narrower group of travellers.
American immigration lawyer Farah Al-khersan and her Canadian husband Osama Fadel experienced it few weeks ago.
Both Ms. Al-khersan and Mr. Fadel were born in Iraq and left when they were 5. They met at Canada's Wonderland, an amusement park north of Toronto, through friends, married two years ago and decided to settle in Michigan where Mr. Fadel obtained a work permit. On the night of Mr. Trump's first immigration ban from select Muslim-majority countries, they were having dinner at his parents' place in Sarnia, Ont.
After hearing reports of border chaos they cut dinner short to head home and ended up detained overnight. Border agents wanted to reject his entry despite his Canadian citizenship and allow Ms. Al-khersan, an American citizen, to go on her way. She wouldn't hear of it.
"I'm naive enough I probably would have handed over my green card, gone back to Sarnia and never gotten back in," Mr. Fadel said. "Luckily I had my lawyer with me."
Ms. Al-khersan argued through the night before the agents finally relented. She's still furious about their treatment and what it means to thousands of other travellers including many of her clients. "We're telling people to stay put unless it's an emergency," she said.
Mr. Fadel said he won't be risking a trip back to Canada again soon for fear he won't be let back in. At the same time he wonders whether the United States is really his home. "When I do go back to Canada for a visit, I won't be going alone," he said. "Not without my lawyer."