Trouble on the border
Americans say good neighbors need better fences
Life changed for Donald Chatwin on the morning of March 4, and not for the better. Chatwin lives in Abbotsford, B.C., a five-minute drive north of the U.S. border. For months, he had been commuting an hour a day to work as a consultant for a computer company in Bellingham, Wash. “Every-
thing,” he says, “was going just excellent”—so well that he bought half the company. For Chatwin, as for millions of Canadians, the border
seemed to have become a technicality.
Big mistake. Although Chatwin had a visa allowing him to work as a consultant in the United States, he hadn’t counted on new measures that give American immigration officials sweeping new powers to crack down on foreigners whom they believe are lying to get into the country. On
March 4, Chatwin was pulled aside by U.S. border agents. They said he was doing work not covered by his visa, and that his application for a work permit was a fraud. As the story developed, he recalls now, it emerged that their source of information was a former bookkeeper for Chatwin’s company who had been fired for embezzling money and was later convicted. No matter. After five hours of questioning, the 27-year-old businessman was photographed, fingerprinted and—under a procedure called expedited removal—barred from entering the United States for five years. Worse, there was no way to appeal a ruling that
had been made on the spot by immigration agents. “So much,” he says ruefully, “for the world’s longest undefended border.”
For Chatwin, the costs of exclusion are both financial and psychological. His income dropped by more than 30 per cent, and he has been left bewildered by a process he describes as arbitrary and pointless. “If I’d been caught smuggling drugs, or something, I’d understand—but there was no point,” he complains. And for many
Canadians, his story is just one of the worst examples of a disturbing trend: the border they once brushed off as nothing more than a line on a map, a stoplight on the way south, has become a more intimidating place. Almost 400 Canadians have, like Chatwin, been subjected to expedited removal since it came into effect in April, 1997, as part of a tough new immigration law adopt-
ed the previous year by the U.S. Congress. Alongside the 116 million people who entered the United States from Canada last year, that may be just a tiny fraction of one per cent—“a minute number,” notes U.S. immigration service official Russell Bergeron. But many others are being questioned more closely or turned back at the border for failing to produce documents as unlikely as an income tax return. U.S. border agents, spurred by the new law, have adopted an attitude they defend as more vigilant—and their critics call more hostile. Even some Americans are howling. In the Washington state border
town of Blaine, the chamber of commerce recently summoned the director of the Peace Arch crossing station to a meeting and unloaded a barrage of complaints. Americans returning from Canada, they said, are being harassed by border agents who are downright rude. “By rude,” lawyer Roger Ellingson told the packed meeting, “I mean sarcastic, speaking down to people and treating them like trash.” Business people, alarmed at increased scrutiny on trips into the United States, have been been packing “U.S. border crackdown” seminars. Some 2,000 of them in the Toronto area have attended sessions sponsored by Hamilton immigration lawyer Paul Ramacieri. “There’s no question the U.S. is examining people more closely,” he says. “They’re starting to ask a lot more questions, which results in people having more troubles.” B.C. Reform MP Val Meredith says she has received complaints from across the country. “There used to be this understanding that Canada and the United States were these friendly neighbors and there wouldn’t be a whole lot of harassment,” she says. “That’s changed. Now, Canadians are considered to be aliens just like everybody else.”
Along the line dividing British Columbia from Washington state, tensions have risen over the newest cross-border cash crop: marijuana. The amount of drugs confiscated by the U.S. Border Patrol in Washington state is soaring—from 1,459 kg in 1997 to 2,736 kg in just the first half of this year. That is still paltry compared to the flood of narcotics from Mexico, but enough to persuade U.S. authorities to designate seven counties hugging the B.C. border as a “high-intensity drug-trafficking area”—the same designation given to hot-
spots like the southwest border, Los Angeles and New York City. The pot trade gives ammunition to Americans determined to tighten up their northern border. A front-page article last week in USA Today carried the lurid headline “Crime finds home on U.S.-Canada border—Drugs, terrorists, smugglers provoke calls for tighter net.” Prominently quoted was Congressman Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas who was the main author of the 1996 immigration law and who has become the most vocal proponent of toughening all U.S. borders. Smith’s office readily distributes articles and background papers that paint the Canadian border as an easy mark for ne’er-do-wells and criminals. They cite cases such as that of Gazi Abu Mezer, a Palestinian who won refugee status in Canada, snuck into the United States, and was arrested in July, 1997, while allegedly planning to bomb New York’s subway system. And they quote from an April report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which acknowledged that most of the world’s terrorist groups “have established themselves in Canada, seeking safe haven, setting up operational bases and attempting to gain access to the U.S A”
For Smith, that means the seemingly peaceable Canadian border is potentially big trouble. ‘We have an open border that is an open invitation to people who want to smuggle in drugs or people or terrorism,” Smith told Maclean’s before chairing a congressional hearing into the border issue last week. “Given new information about international terrorists based in Canada and surging drug busts along the northern border, it appears that terrorists and drug smugglers have discovered the easy way into the U.S.”
Smith is also the key person behind another controversial part of the 1996 law—one that has given fits to Canadian officials in Washington for months. Section 110 of the law would require strict entry and exit controls at all U.S. borders. Its premise is to crack down on illegal immigrants by keeping track of people who enter the United States legally, and then overstay their visas. The law says those controls are to be implemented on Oct. 1.
But with the deadline just over nine weeks away, no one has figured out how to do that. Opponents warn it would create nightmarish tie-ups at major border points by requiring Canadians to fill out forms as they cross into the United States—and then check again
with American agents as they go home. And last week, the U.S. Senate dealt the measure a major blow by voting to repeal it. Senators from several northern states, led by Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, added a one-line provision to repeal Section 110 onto a spending bill and senators passed it by a vote of 99 to 0.
Raymond Chrétien, Canada’s ambassador to Washington, had been lobbying furiously against Section 110, alerting sympathetic American politicians and business groups to the consequences of new border tie-ups. Just an extra 30 seconds’ delay per car, he is fond of pointing out, could lead to hours-long backups and throw businesses that depend on just-in-time deliveries from the other side of the border into chaos. But appeals from foreigners— even from nice Canadians—carry next to no weight on Capitol Hill. So Canada encouraged U.S. interests who would also feel the pain to make their voices heard, and discreetly encouraged the formation of a coalition aimed at doing away with Section 110, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Last week’s Senate vote bought opponents some time on the border issue, but Section 110 is not dead yet. The House of Representatives has agreed only to postpone its implementation for a year, and the two chambers will fight it out on what should finally be done. But Chrétien said the Senate’s 99-to-0 vote sends a powerful message. “Lamar Smith is bound to see that the Senate in its entirety—Republicans and Democrats, northerners and southerners—are against it,” he noted in an interview.
But even if Section 110 never goes into effect, the other rules that have made the border a less friendly place will be unaffected—in particular the expedited removal process that ended Don Chatwin’s daily commute to Bellingham. U.S. officials insist the outcry in Canada is unwarranted. They point out the vast majority of those subjected to expedited removal—some 47,000 in the first year of its existence—were Mexicans. Only -WSmmm
about 360 were Canadians, and even Canadian officials note that most were ineligible to enter the States—often because they have criminal records.
Ottawa will not denounce the procedure, partly because it uses its own version of expedited removal to exclude unwanted aliens without appeal.
At the same time, officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service are fed up with suggestions they are persecuting Canadians. When Maclean’s raised Chatwin’s case with INS spokesman Bergeron, he quickly made available a transcript of an interview conducted by border agents as part of the procedure that led to the expulsion. In it, Chatwin appears to acknowledge he did sales work for the Bellingham company, which was not permitted under his visa. Chatwin says it was all a misunderstanding, but Bergeron is unyielding: “If you twist the truth or tell half-truths, then you violate the law. That’s no different in Canada or the United States.”
And the INS bridles at suggestions that its frontline people are out of control. Bergeron says criticism of heavy-handed methods misses the point. Congress wanted a tough law to crack down on people who try to lie their way into the United States—and got it. “It’s just people doing their job,” he insists. And the lack of an appeal procedure is not an arbitrary whim; Congress deliberately did not provide for one to ensure aliens were removed promptly (“expeditiously” in the law’s language).
Overworked agents tend to be grumpy
But the full story is more complicated. Almost all the new resources for U.S. border control have been funnelled to the Mexican frontier, stretching thin the relatively small number of immigration, customs and Border Patrol agents guarding the 6,440-km northern line. Only 291 Border Patrol officials guard the 49th parallel—compared with 7,409 along the frontier with Mexico. Michael Brennan, president of the Bellingham-area chamber of commerce and a close observer of
northern border problems, says: “The crew that’s up there right now is so dramatically overworked that any human, with that kind of work schedule and that amount of overtime, would be grumpy.” Rod Hickman, deputy area director for U.S. Customs at the
crossing in Blaine, Wash., agrees the workload is killing: ‘We have inspectors working double shifts, 16-hour days, sometimes three or four days in a row.” Others say a tougher law may embolden border agents with tendencies to bully people. “Some officers just like to exercise power,” says Greg Boos, an immigration lawyer in Bellingham. “If you give it to them, they’ll use it.”
Of course, the great majority of Canadians who run into trouble
are not subjected to the harshness of expedited removal. But immigration lawyers say many others are being turned back at the border for reasons almost unheard of until recently. Jason Bennett, a researcher
from London, Ont., tried to cross at the Niagara Falls Peace Bridge on June 12 with his girlfriend, Jennifer Evans, a Canadian studying at the State University of New York. He was pulled aside and told to prove that he intended to return to Canada and not stay—illegally—in the United States. He produced a passport, bank statements and credit card statements. But he was refused entry when he could not produce an income tax return. He suffered no penalty, but if a U.S. official asks him in the future whether he has ever been refused entry to the United States, he will have to answer yes or face severe repercussions.
A few Canadians are challenging the expedited removal process through a class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington by a public interest group called the American Immigration Law Foundation. Four of the 16 plaintiffs are Canadians, including Steven Williamson, a 28-year-old businessman in Oakville, Ont., who tried to cross the border at Detroit in June, 1997. He was on his way to meet the owners of a business in Arizona in which he had invested $300,000. He never made it. Border agents accused him of lying about the trip and banned him from the United States for five years. Now, says Williamson’s father, Bud, he has reached an agreement
with U.S. authorities to erase the offence and get back into the States. But it cost a small fortune in legal fees. “After $100,000 and 15 months,” says Bud Williamson, “we’ll be back to Square 1.”
Or take Evan Shear, whose saga perhaps best illustrates the new realities for Canadians. A 30-year-old fledgling scriptwriter from Toronto, Shear tried to cross into the United States last Aug. 26 at the Rainbow Bridge over the Niagara River. He had spent 12 years in the States, earning his high-school diploma, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The border had been obliterated in his mind—a nuisance he wanted to dispense with as quickly as possible so he could catch a flight to Los Angeles from Buffalo, N.Y., to sell a screenplay. So he did what untold numbers of Canadians have done before— he lied to a border agent. “I didn’t want to say I had a oneway ticket to LA because obviously it would open a Pandora’s box, so I said I was going to New York for Labor
Day,” Shear recalls. “I thought he’d say, ‘Great! Say hi to the Big Apple for me.’ I was naive. He got suspicious.”
Shear says he immediately retracted the lie and told the truth, but the agent who pulled him aside gave him no second chance. “When I explained what I was doing, he said: You know what a felony is? You’re looking at five years in a federal penitentiary.’ I cottonmouthed. It was like Midnight Express with my heart beating like a drum.” Shear was subjected to expedited removal and barred from entering the United States for five years— a huge blow to his plans to make it in Los Angeles. A Buffalo lawyer, Robert Kolken, has taken Shear’s case to U.S. Federal Court. He will argue that under existing American regulations, Canadians have a right to a hearing before an immigration judge before being barred from the United States.
Shear accepts that he is partly at fault, but says he “wasn’t thinking with a criminal mind. I just wanted to get by quickly. One has to take the consequences for one’s actions, but I don’t believe the consequence for this is just.” Unfortunately for Shear, he learned the hard way that the old friendly border is not what it used to be.
With CHRIS WOOD in Bellingham, JOHNNICOL in Buffalo and STEPHEN GLUCK in Washington