Friday January 20, 2017

'We didn't have anything to hide': Canadian heading to Women's March refused entry to U.S.

McGill student Joseph Decunha was turned down at the U.S. border when he explained he was going to Washington, D.C. to attend the Women's March.

McGill student Joseph Decunha was turned down at the U.S. border when he explained he was going to Washington, D.C. to attend the Women's March. (Joseph Decunha)

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Joseph Decunha had plans to spend the weekend in Washington, D.C. for the Women's March. 

On Thursday night, the McGill student, along with two American companions, began the drive from Montreal to the U.S. capital. But when they hit the border, DeCunha was told by border guards that the Women's March wasn't a good enough reason for him to get into the United States. 

Decunha isn't the only Canadian to encounter issues while trying to cross the border to get to Washington. 

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about his experience.

Helen Mann: Mr. Decunha, at what point did you realize that the border guards might have concerns about your weekend plans? 

Joseph Decunha:   [Me], my partner Ruth and a good friend of mine, Malcolm - the two of them are American citizens and I'm a Canadian - pulled up at the Lacolle border crossing at about 10 p.m. last night. Everything was standard at first. We assumed that we didn't have anything to hide. We were open about our plans, handed them our passports, explained that we would be going down for the Inauguration. We weren't yet sure what we would be doing on the day of the Inauguration, but we would be attending the Women's March the day after on the Saturday. 

US Cda Bill 20161210

The United States border crossing is shown Wednesday, December 7, 2011 in Lacolle, Que., south of Montreal. A bill with potentially sweeping consequences for the Canada-U.S. border has just been adopted by the American Congress, allowing new projects aimed at speeding up travel through the international boundary. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

HM: And was that the point where they said to you, "Just a minute?" 

JD: Yep, pretty much. At that point, they decided that they were sending us to secondary [inspection]. It wasn't yet clear to me at that point that they were sending us over for that reason. I thought,"You know, they see a car of 20 somethings. They just want to search it." 

But looking back, and hearing the stories of other travellers who were stopped at the border, I think it's clear to me that as soon as they heard that we would be attending the Women's March, that was the moment they were going to send us in for secondary inspection. 

USA-ELECTION/TRUMP

Women take part in a protest against Donald Trump in Chicago. The Women's March on Washington event on Jan. 21, 2017, is expected to draw as many as 200,000 people, with the state goal of bringing attention to women's and human-rights issues as President Trump's administration takes over. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

HM: What was involved in that secondary process? What kind of questions were you asked? 

JD: The first question that he asked point blank was, "Are you anti or pro-Trump? At that time, I just assumed that he was just trying to feel out our opinions and what we were doing. We all expressed that we were anti. We simply had nothing to hide.  

He took a lot of interest in my opinions in particular. I'm assuming because I was the only Canadian there. At this point, he was quite friendly. He engaged me in a bit of conversation about why I oppose Trump and I spoke about the Affordable Care Act and some of the outrageous statements that he's made towards minorities. 

trump inauguration

Newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump pumps his fist at the conclusion of his inaugural address during ceremonies swearing him in as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Then from there, the questioning moved on and I believe the border guard was just trying to determine if we were extremists or not. He asked about where I'd been, if i'd ever been to the Middle East. He asked about my political engagements. I explained I've been a member of the NDP in the past. 

HM: How long did it take before he told you you're not crossing? 

JD:  We probably only spoke for maybe four or five minutes. And at the end of that encounter, he made that statement, "I'm going to be upfront with you." And then he stopped and said, "I need to go and speak with my supervisor." We sat down for a few moments and he called us back up. He explained that both Ruth and Malcolm would be able to cross because they are American citizens but I would not be able to cross as a Canadian citizen for the sole purpose of participating in any sort of demonstrations.

I felt so powerless in that situation. I assumed that no amount of arguing with a border guard was going to allow me to cross. So, I was mostly quiet.  - Joseph DeCunha, Canadian denied at the U.S. border

It was at this time that he started to throw some sort of pseudo legal jargon at us. He used the phrase "silent disruption" to characterize what I would be doing there. He said, "Would you agree that by standing in these crowds, that even though you may be a pacifist, that you would be disrupting events?" 

HM: And what did you answer? 

JD: I felt so powerless in that situation. I assumed that no amount of arguing with a border guard was going to allow me to cross. So, I was mostly quiet. 

Ruth, on the other hand, was quite upset and engaged the border guard. His arguments started to fall apart. [Ruth] mentioned that the Women's March has permits from the Metropolitan Police Department and the National Park Service. It's not like we're participating in anything illegal. [The guard] dropped the term "silent disruption" a few more times and then tried to explain that there were a series of bins Canadians have to fall into when they're entering the United States. One of those things can be tourism, one of those things can be for work or whatever it may be in that attending a march of any sort wouldn't fall into one of those bins.

Sasha Dyck

Sasha Dyck, another Montrealer who was denied entry into the United States the day before Donald Trump's inauguration. (CBC)

At this point, it was made clear to us that if I had been attending in support of Donald Trump and attending the Inauguration as a happy onlooker, that probably would have fallen under tourism and I would have been allowed to cross. 

trump inauguration

U.S. President Donald Trump takes the oath of office as his wife Melania holds the bible and his children Barron, Ivanka, Eric and Tiffany watch as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, right, administers the oath during inauguration ceremonies swearing in Trump as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2017.

HM: Did anyone directly say to you that if you were a Trump supporter going for the Inauguration, we'd let you cross? 

JD: I don't believe that any guard would dare to say those words because it's so incriminating of themselves. They [also] asked me, "Would you characterize this event as an anti-Trump event?" I explained that while the event doesn't market itself as being anti-Trump, everything that it stands for is opposed to what the Trump administration believes. 

HM: U.S. border guards can refuse entry for any reason and they have complete discretion. So, I have to wonder if you were trying to make a point in saying what you said to them right from the start. 

JD: We weren't trying to make any points whatsoever. We weren't aware that entering the United States to attend a march was something that we had to hide. We felt that we had nothing to hide. And just like individuals should do at any border crossing, we were forthcoming with what we intended to do and we didn't lie about that whatsoever. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Joseph Decunha.