Montreal

Canadian woman en route to Vermont spa denied entry to U.S., told she needs immigrant visa

Montreal resident Manpreet Kooner says thought of crossing border now makes her sick

Manpreet Kooner

Manpreet Kooner, pictured with her fiancé, was born in Canada and holds a Canadian passport. She claims she was turned away at the U.S. border on the weekend and told she needed an immigrant visa. (Submitted by Manpreet Kooner)

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A Canadian woman travelling on a Canadian passport says she was turned away at the U.S. border and told she needed a valid immigrant visa to enter the country.

Manpreet Kooner, 30, is a Canadian citizen who was born to Indian parents in Canada and raised here. She now lives in Montreal's LaSalle borough with her fiancé and works in a science lab at a local college.

She told CBC she was on her way from Montreal to a spa in Vermont for a day trip with two friends, who are both white, Sunday afternoon. They never made it.

Kooner said she was held at the border for six hours before being turned away. 

At one point, she said, a border agent told her: "'I know you may feel like you've been Trumped,'" an apparent reference to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump's January executive order barring citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the country was later blocked in U.S. courts, but has touched off legal battles and confusion around the world.

Kooner was told to apply for the visa at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. She went to the embassy Monday morning but was told they couldn't help her, and that she would need to talk to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"I'm speechless," she said. "There are no answers."

Canadian citizen told she needs visa to visit U.S. 0:18

In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) said it does not discuss individual cases, but that those who present themselves at ports of entry must prove they fulfill admission requirements, and that admission to the U.S. is at the discretion of the border officers.

The statement also says CBP adopted a policy in 2014 that "prohibits the consideration of race or ethnicity in law enforcement, investigation, and screening activities, in all but the most exceptional circumstances."

Kooner's story is the latest in a string of recent tales involving Canadian travellers scrutinized or turned away by U.S. border agents. 

Last month, for instance, a woman from the Montreal suburb of Brossard said she was denied entry after being fingerprinted, photographed and questioned in detail about her religion and her views on Trump.

Kooner was reluctant to attribute her situation to racism, but said friends who have reached out to her say that could be the case.

"People have said we need to take that into account here, because unfortunately, yeah, my skin colour is brown," she said.

Told she needed an immigrant visa

Kooner said this summer, her mother was turned away at the border as well, but wasn't told why. Kooner said she was told her mother's issues wouldn't impact her.

She first had trouble getting into the U.S. last December, before Trump took office. She was with friends and her fiancé when her car was pulled over for what she was told was a random check, she said.

She was made to fill out a number of forms, but was eventually told there was a problem with the computer system and they should return the next morning.

When they went back, she was let through without any problems.

Manpreet Kooner form

The form explaining why Kooner was denied entry to the U.S. says she was turned away because she is an immigrant who did not have a valid immigrant visa. (Submitted by Manpreet Kooner)

She said that when she tried to cross Sunday, at Highgate Springs, Vt., an agent checked her passport and said they needed to ask her additional questions.

The agent mentioned that she had been stopped in December and asked why she was trying to go through again, Kooner said. 

She said she told them she's a Canadian citizen, has no criminal record and, before December, never had any issues crossing the border.

She also said she was fingerprinted and photographed, and signed a form to withdraw her application for entry to the United States.

Though she was told there are no flags on her file, a border agent advised her not to fly to the U.S. without a visa, Kooner said.

The reference to Trump came as the agent was explaining the reasons why she was refused entry, she said.

Manpreet Kooner trip

In December, Kooner and her fiancé took a trip to upstate New York to visit a winery. On their way there, she says, she was questioned at the border, but was later allowed to cross without issue. (Submitted by Manpreet Kooner)

The border agent couldn't say what kind of visa she would need, only that she would have to visit the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa to get one.

Kooner said that's when she started to cry.

Visas generally not needed for Canadian travellers

CBC News spoke to Kooner's friend Alexandra Adam, who was one of the two women on the trip with her.

Adam caught the end of the conversation between Kooner and the border agent and confirmed Kooner was told she likely wouldn't be allowed into the U.S. without a visa.

Adam said she was not present when the agent allegedly made the Trump comment.

A U.S. Embassy official said most travellers from Canada and Bermuda generally do not need visas for tourism and visits.

Canadians who are intending to immigrate or those planning to marry a U.S. citizen are among those who do need visas. Kooner does not fall under either category.

U.S. immigration lawyer Leslie Holman said it doesn't appear that there's a reason Kooner would need a visa to get into the country.

"Even if someone has a visa, the ultimate decision as to whether they can enter the United States rests when you seek admissibility, at the time of entry," she said.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs told CBC News the common category of visa that is used for short term, non-immigrant travel to the United States – including tourism and business – is the B1/B2 visa.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an average of 1.2 million people a day try to enter the U.S. at all crossings. Of those, an average of between 300 and 500 are denied entry for various reasons.

Kooner has spent more than $1,000 on tickets to attend a musical festival in Miami at the end of the month, and planned to return to that city in May for her bachelorette party.

She said she is now thinking about selling those tickets and cancelling the party. She said the thought of having to cross the border now makes her feel sick.

She said she feels like the border agents singled her out and didn't ask to speak to her friends.

"I feel targeted. I'm set aside from everyone else, and I feel helpless because I keep asking, 'What do I need to do?'"

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