Editorial: Draconian U.S. border tactics threaten all of us

For many of us, the U.S. – Canada border was never more than a formality. In spite of customs inspections, there was little doubt that Maine resorts, Vermont skiing, NYC culture, were ours to frequent — an extension of our
Canadian lives.

Since the Trump ascendancy, there are signs that a new virtual wall is being erected on what used to be called one of the longest undefended borders in the world, and access to the U.S. can no longer be taken for granted.

If you’re Muslim or your name sounds Islamic, you stand a strong chance of being subjected to search and interrogation by U.S. customs and border protection officers, who have the power to deny you access to the U.S.

More compelling is the plight of hundreds of refugees and other migrants in the U.S. who, fearing the crackdown underway will lead to their detention, are walking across the loosely patrolled borders of Quebec and Manitoba, risking frostbite and arrest, to seek asylum.

These are extraordinary times, and it is time for an extraordinary response, as Rabble correspondent in Ottawa, Karl Nerenberg, points out. We urge Canadians to support a national petition launched last month by a Calgary lawyer that calls on the federal government to temporarily suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S.
According to that arrangement, signed in 2004, refugees are required to make an asylum claim in the first possible country they reach.

That means Canada is prevented from considering an asylum request from anyone who enters in the usual way from the U.S., presently considered a safe country in which to apply for sanctuary.

Those who have crossed the border without going through customs and immigration, even assisted in several instances by RCMP to reach safety in Canada, technically avoid the safe third country prescription because they crossed illegally and other regulations apply.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has yet to signal any change in current policy. Anyone who crosses the border illegally is turned over to the Canada Border Services Agency for processing.

They determine whether the asylum claim is legitimate, and the file is then transferred to the Immigration and Refugee Board for determination. If judged illegitimate, the person may be deported.

We urge the Canadian government to enforce this policy. The Conservative critic, Tony Clement, petulantly hung up the phone during a live interview with Mike Finnerty of CBC Radio’s Daybreak last month, when asked what the RCMP should do. All Clement would say was “apply the law.”

He hung up when asked to elaborate.

The petition to suspend the Third Country Agreement with the U.S. is supported by more than 200 Canadian law professors and refugee law experts and sponsored by Liberal MP Darshan Kang.

A suspension is permitted under the agreement and can be renewed for an additional three months by either party. Things could change and there is every reason for the government to suspend the agreement with the U.S. while the situation is in a state of flux and confusion. So far, the government has refused, but we believe they should reconsider.

Meanwhile, Canadians seeking to visit the U.S. can no longer take anything for granted. Case in point: Last month Yassine Aber, a 19-year-old University of Sherbrooke student in Kinesiology, was questioned for five hours and fingerprinted at the Stanstead, Que. border crossing, before being denied entry to the U.S. Born in Canada and holding a valid Canadian passport, he was en route to Boston with his college colleagues for a track and field competition. His parents were born in Morocco.

He was detained and his phone was searched. He was shown a Facebook photo of himself and six others including Samir Halilovic, a former Sherbrooke university student who left for Syria in 2014 with two others. Aber said he barely knew Halilovic, having met him once or twice, including at a wedding he attended at the restaurant his parents had operated.

Aber was told he could not enter the U.S. because he did not have a boarding pass or valid visa. His Canadian passport expires in 2026. He was asked to turn over his phone and password. He complied, and an intrusive search followed.

How could this happen, one might ask? After all, a U.S. federal appeals court has blocked enforcement of Donald Trump’s executive order of Jan. 27 barring people from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days, which upheld the earlier decision of a federal court judge in Seattle.

The order, to keep, in Trump’s words, “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the U.S., targeted visitors from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

Aber’s is not an isolated case. It is an example of ethno-racial profiling, and of guilt by association, which is emerging as part of the extreme vetting of visitors to the U.S., and even its own citizens, that Trump had threatened for Muslims.

This climate recalls the Red Scare paranoia of the 1950’s in the U.S. and Canada that led to people being barred from visiting the U.S. as well as being fired and smeared in both countries for alleged ties to the Communist Party.

Other cases: Last month, Klaus Lang, a composer of international repute and professor of composition at the University of Graz in Austria, was denied a U.S. visa to attend a Los Angeles performance of his work. No reason was given, but Lang believes it is linked to a non-governmental award he received four years ago in Iran.

Henry Rousso, a pre-eminent French scholar and public intellectual, was detained for more than 10 hours at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport after an 11-hour flight from Paris. He had been invited to speak at Texas A&M University, and did, but only after the university intervened.

Non-Americans have few options. They can be faced with a dilemma when asked by US customs and border officers to hand over their electronic devices and passwords for vetting. Refuse, and they can be denied entry, or under new rules about to take effect, Canadians can be detained by US officials on our soil for further questioning.

This presents a host of civil rights issues, since, as Esha Bhandari, staff attorney for the speech privacy and technology project at the American Civil Liberties Union has pointed out. “Our mobile devices contain many details of our lives — finances, health, relationships. If you’re a doctor or a lawyer, you might have attorney-client or doctor-patient privileged material on there.

“Some people who travel for business have very sensitive business information, trade secret information,” she says. Ultimately, if U.S. Customs officers want your data and ask for it, they will either get it or keep you out of the country.

Since U.S. Customs operates in Canada to offer pre-clearance at many Canadian airports, our own charter rights and freedoms may be at risk.

Under an agreement inherited by the current government, introduced as Bill C-23 and now before the House or Commons, U.S. customs would have the right to detain, question and strip-search people in Canada trying to enter the U.S.

It is under review by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which is concerned that a Canadian traveller facing such an inquisition would not be allowed to simply change their mind, disengage from the process, and return home.

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