A B.C. sales representative who markets equestrian products in Canada was barred from crossing the U.S. border to attend a trade show last month by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer who accused him of trying to steal American jobs.
"He looked at me, and in a yelling voice he said, 'You're friggin' stealing jobs away from American citizens,' and I tried telling him that I wasn't," Joel Borsteinas told CBC News.
Borsteinas, a Canadian citizen, said he's been in business for 15 years, acting as a middleman between U.S. and Canadian suppliers of western wear and equestrian products and Canadian retailers who want to stock the products.
He said he goes to the U.S. half a dozen times a year to attend trade shows and meet with suppliers who want him to market their products to retailers north of the border. They pay him a commission for every Canadian order he sends to them.
On Feb. 26, Borsteinas said, he was on his way to a trade show in Oregon when he was pulled over at the border and questioned for an hour before being refused entry. He said he's never been stopped at the border before, and he said he always tells the truth about where he is going and why.
"Anybody that buys off an American distribution company or an American manufacturer company has some sort of a liaison in Canada," said Borsteinas.
'I'm creating American jobs'
"I'm creating American jobs. The (U.S.) companies that I actually work for — I have been in touch with them all — and they still think that this is absolutely crazy."
Borsteinas said the border officer who refused to allow him entry to the U.S. was the supervisor on duty at the time at the Sumas crossing in southwestern B.C.
"I said, 'Well, I don't actually bring the products in. I just write the orders. It's all in Canada,'" said Borsteinas.
'You are stealing jobs away from us.' — Joel Borsteinas, quoting U.S. border protection officer
"He says, 'Oh, you are a consultant, then.' I says, 'No — I'm just a salesman. I sell to Canadian stores.' And he says 'Nope, you are a consultant,'" said Borsteinas. "Once again, he says 'You are stealing jobs away from us.'"
Borsteinas said he was then fingerprinted and sent back into Canada. The border officer warned him if he tried to enter the U.S. on business again, he should expect to be prosecuted.
"He said if I ever come down to the U.S. again with the intentions of working, I will be arrested," said Borsteinas.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection says attending a U.S. trade show is not grounds for an officer to refuse entry to a salesperson representing U.S. companies in Canada. He said such representatives would only be breaking the rules if they tried to peddle the products on U.S. soil.
"If they do all of their business in Canada, that's fine," said chief customs and border protection officer Thomas Schreiber. "If they are going down for a trade show, a business meeting, to go over a sales strategy with their umbrella corporation — that's a permissible activity."
Comments warrant complaint: U.S. border rep
Schreiber also said border officers aren't supposed to accuse anyone of trying to steal American jobs.
"We would not be encouraging officers to editorialize on current events," said Schreiber. "There is no targeting of business people. There is no American protectionism, if you will.
"If there is a traveller that thinks the questioning is inappropriate or unprofessional, whatever that questioning, we encourage them to report that."
Kelly Rose Ivahnenko, field branch chief of the Customs and Border Protection office of public affairs, explained why a Canadian sales representative could be refused entry to the U.S.
"Labour for hire is prohibited, and taking orders in the United States for a product produced in the United States is generally considered labour for hire," Ivahnenko said in an email sent to CBC News on Tuesday.
"The U.S. is Canada's number 1 trading partner, and CBP is committed to securing our shared border while ensuring the facilitation of legitimate trade and travellers into the U.S.
"That said, we have manifest standards for the importation of goods, and admissibility qualifiers for business travellers. To help raise awareness of that information and encourage compliance of these requirements, we encourage Canadians to inquire at the consulate about the various work authorizations available," Ivahnenko said.
"The wagons get circled pretty quick when there's a downturn like this," said Craig Williams, vice-president of the B.C. division of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME), Canada's largest trade and industry association.
Williams said CME members tend to encounter more difficulties at the U.S. border when there is an economic slowdown. He said the current discussion in Washington about "Buy America" provisions doesn't help.
'Buy America' spreading fear
"I think it is part of an undercurrent of 'Buy America' that is happening in the United States right now," said Williams.
"Unfortunately, it seems to be some of the sentiment that's coming out of the average guy on the street down there — as their family members are losing jobs or they are having cutbacks or they read the newspaper every night. It's very discouraging — and I think it sets a tone of fear."
"I just hope its not a precursor for more," he added.
U.S. immigration lawyer David Andersson said Borsteinas may still face problems trying to cross the border again, because he has now been flagged in the system.
"If he didn't cross the border and his molecules stayed north of the 49th parallel, he would be fine, of course," said Andersson.
Still, he said, Canadians paid by U.S. companies — even if it's commissions earned in Canada — could be found to be "working" in the U.S., if a border officer decided to interpret the rules that way.
"There are people who are breaking regulations and rules and policy every day of every minute of the year," Andersson said. "[Border officers] are not immune to the news every day that comes out that thousands if not millions of Americans are losing their jobs — so that if they become sensitized to that issue, it would be, of course, understandable, and that's probably what happened in this case."
To Borsteinas, however, it's more personal.
"It does affect my business," he said. "It doesn't matter if someone can email me the information that I'm going down to look at. It's still not the same as being there and meeting people and shaking hands."
Borsteinas said he's now afraid to try to cross again. Ironically, he said, his U.S. suppliers will be hurt by lost sales in Canada if he isn't able to carry on with the business he spent years building.
"Every time I take an order for a product — somebody has to pack it, build it, ship it, and that all adds hours of work in the U.S. factories," he said. "I'm selling American product. And I'm working harder than I ever have at promoting these companies."