Canadian border officials, who now have unprecedented access to U.S. criminal-record databases, should exercise common sense and flexibility when judging the admissibility of American visitors.
A Californian who stole a mascot – a goat – in a high-school prank 20 years ago surely isn't a threat to Canada's national security, or a likely candidate to reoffend. Nor is a rock star who paid a $100 fine for reckless driving seven years ago. Nor is the vice-president of a multinational corporation with two minor offences from his college days.
Yet officials with the Canadian Border Services Agency recently denied entry to these three individuals, and many others in similar circumstances. The Californian was kept for questioning for seven hours by Vancouver border officials before being sent home. This overzealous application of the law does nothing to keep the country safe, and only deprives Canada of important business and tourism opportunities.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. invested heavily in improving its FBI database that contains information from all states, detailing criminal convictions, arrests and fingerprinting.
With access to this more sophisticated database, CBSA officials now have information on minor offences dating back 30 years, and have begun denying entry to Americans who used to routinely visit Canada without incident. Once denied, the only way a prospective visitor can enter is if they submit a "rehabilitation" application to a Canadian visa post abroad. This process is burdensome, costly and bureaucratic, and can take up to 18 months.
"If the person poses no threat to society, where is the gain in refusing to admit them?" asks Sergio Karas, an immigration lawyer in Toronto. "These people are not coming to live here. They come to do business. And in many cases they have been coming to Canada for years without a problem, but are now suddenly prohibited from entering."
Of course, American border officials also routinely deny entry to Canadian visitors with criminal convictions – and are especially vigilant about not allowing in people with even minor drug convictions. This issue too needs to be revisited. Border officials in both Canada and the U.S. should exercise discretion and judgment. And if they are unwilling to demonstrate such flexibility, their political masters should order them to. To do otherwise is exasperating and fails to accomplish the goal of keeping both countries safe from the real criminals and terrorists.