A young woman from Gatineau, Que., says she was strip-searched and stranded in Windsor, Ont., in the middle of the night by U.S. border officials.
"It was a horrible experience," said Nina Vroemen, 20, who was on her way to volunteer at a California organic farm. "There was no need for that humiliation and mistreatment of a young, female Canadian volunteer."
As of Wednesday morning, U.S. immigration officials had not returned calls about the case.
Vroemen, who studies theatre at Concordia University, set off from Montreal on May 5 on a Greyhound bus. She had found the volunteer job in California through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and planned to spend a month helping run art workshops at the farm. She thought she would explore the U.S. by bus on the way there.
'He was trying to make it seem like…because I was getting room and board, that was considered being paid. He told me that I was taking jobs from American citizens ' — Nina Vroemen
"You can go to a farm anywhere in the world and help out," she told CBC's Ottawa Morning Wednesday. "You gain friends and experience…you travel, it's low cost and you feel good."
The bus arrived at the Windsor-Detroit border at 2 a.m., and Vroemen was interviewed about her plans by a U.S. border guard.
"He was trying to make it seem like … because I was getting room and board, that was considered being paid," said Vroemen, who had previously volunteered through WWOOF in Europe. "He told me that I was taking jobs from American citizens because I was going to help out on this community workshop."
'I watched the bus leave'
The guard asked for official documentation. She provided her passport and WWOOF membership, but he said it wasn't enough, and denied her entry.
"They told me to take off all my stuff from the bus and I watched the bus leave," she recalled. "Two women came with blue latex gloves … I was just in a panic."
She was told to take off everything except her jumper and was patted down. Then she was fingerprinted and photographed.
"This photograph is me in tears," she recalled.
With that image on record, Vroemen said she is afraid to cross the border again.
Border officials ordered a taxi to send her to the Windsor bus station, even though Vroemen said it was probably closed and she had no Canadian money.
When she arrived at the station, the doors were locked, but a security guard directed her to a women's shelter. The beds were full but she spent the night on the couch. The next morning, she managed to buy a new bus ticket and return home.
Vroemen said she doesn't think she will make another attempt to get to the volunteer job in California.
WWOOF recommends silence
Ryan (Leo) Goldsmith, program co-ordinator for WWOOF-USA, said the organization is distressed by the situation and is working on a solution.
"The problem is that U.S. immigration officials feel that working on a farm, even as an unpaid volunteer, is work that an American [should earn] a wage for," he said in a statement Wednesday.
"Our current recommendation, made clear on our website in various places, is to not mention WWOOF when crossing the border."
He added that the organization is researching how to present itself as an educational opportunity that does not displace farm workers.