A Canadian immigration and refugee lawyer reacting to a lawsuit by three women alleging they were molested by female U.S. border guards says she fields at least one complaint weekly about invasive searches at Windsor, Ont.-Detroit crossings.  

"I hear complaints unfortunately on a regular basis," Sandra Zaher said, adding that knowing your rights is the best way to defend yourself.

However, a person has little more than the right to question why they are being searched and to ask for a new officer to conduct it, she said.

"At primary and secondary inspection, an individual does not have the right to counsel."

That means a person cannot have a lawyer present, but you can question the process.

According to U.S. customs policy, an officer needs at least one fact before conducting a patdown and at least one witness must be present for all personal searches, except immediate patdowns for officer safety.

'It's bad for tourism'

Earlier this week, it was learned that the three Canadian women filed lawsuits alleging "sexual molestation" by the female U.S. border guards. Two separate lawsuits were filed — one by two women travelling together and the other by a woman on her own — in incidents that allegedly took place at the Ambassador Bridge and the Windsor-Detroit tunnel.

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A similar lawsuit was also filed by a Stratford, Ont., woman in February 2011.

A leading researcher on Canadian-U.S. border policy says crossing the border is intimidating to many casual travellers, and it's killing tourism and day trips.

"It’s the only time when they run into a law enforcement officer asking them pointed questions and making them feel under suspicion," said Bill Anderson, Ontario research chair in cross-border policy at the University of Windsor.

Anderson said an experience like that makes people less likely to cross again if they don't travel often.

"It’s bad for tourism, it’s bad for the economy, it’s bad for our relationship with the United States," Anderson said.

Anderson crosses the border multiple times a week, and questions at the border are "like water off a duck's back" to him.

"But for the casual border crosser, it’s intimidating," Anderson said.

Fewer people are crossing into Ontario compared to the 1970s, according to Anderson. He said the number of cross-border shoppers, casual visitors and tourists continues to fall.

"That has really collapsed since 2001," Anderson said, referring to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Anderson called the attacks "a game changer" but said that numbers had been falling before new security restrictions were put in place.

"That decline started long before passports came into play," he said. "The border is working better now than it was a few years ago. Part of that is because they are improving their procedures. Part of it is because of the economic situation."

The recession has slowed cross-border trade between Canada and the U.S. Anderson said the approximately 8,000 trucks that cross the Ambassador Bridge each day has dropped over previous years.

Still, $1 billion in trade crosses the bridge daily.

Anderson said border guards have to balance an open border, especially at the Ambassador Bridge, and security. He said the interrogation-style stop may be what's turning people away.