Canadians denied entry to U.S. after questions about religion take case to feds

Montrealers Fadwa Alaoui and her cousin, Fadela Boutaleb, were refused entry to the U.S. on Saturday while trying to cross into Vermont for a daytrip to Burlington.

Montreal women say they were asked about Moroccan origins, Muslim faith before being turned away

Fadwa Alaoui and Fadela Boutaleb visited the office of Alexandra Mendes, the Liberal MP for Brossard-Saint-Lambert, on Thursday to request the federal government's help. (CBC)

Two Canadian women who were denied entry to the United States after facing questions about their Muslim faith are asking the federal government to get involved.

Montrealers Fadwa Alaoui and her cousin, Fadela Boutaleb, were refused entry to the U.S. on Saturday while trying to cross into Vermont for a daytrip to Burlington.

He asked if I wear the niqab and if I do the Hajj, the pilgrimage.- Fadela Boutaleb

The women met representatives for their local Liberal MP, Alexandra Mendes, on Thursday and plan to lodge a formal complaint in the next few days with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

Asked what she hopes the government can do for her, Alaoui said she needs to know why she was refused entry to the U.S. and whether she'll be able to visit her parents and brother in the United States.

"This is what I have to do as a Canadian citizen, to know if they have a right to treat us like that," she said.

"I have my family there and I want to go see my family, so it's important for me to know if it will happen again."

Questioned separately

The women were travelling with two of Alaoui's children, including her five-year-old son Youssef who had just finished chemotherapy treatments.

Both women say they were questioned separately for at least half an hour by U.S. border agents.

Boutaleb described the questioning she faced for the first time Thursday, saying she was asked about her Moroccan origins and whether she was a practicing Muslim.

"He asked if Moroccans like Americans," Boutaleb told CBC Montreal.

"He asked if I wear the niqab and if I do the Hajj, the pilgrimage."

Both women are practising Muslims, though only Alaoui wears a head covering. 

Fadela Boutaleb said the border guard who interviewed her asked if she wears a niqab. (CBC)

Looking for answers

The daytrip to Vermont was meant to be a fun distraction for Youssef, Alaoui said Thursday.

​"It was only to treat my son, to have a beautiful day there [in Burlington]."

Alaoui and Boutaleb went to Mendes, who represents the suburban Montreal riding of Brossard–Saint-Lambert, to formally request Canada's help in the matter.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale have both said the government is looking into what happened.

In Question Period on Thursday, Goodale said people travelling on a Canadian passport "need to be respected."

"Proper and appropriate treatment for all people from Canada seeking to enter the U.S. or any other country is a priority for this government," Goodale said.

Goodale encouraged anyone experiencing such a situation to "appeal through the normal processes" and promised to take them up with the U.S. administration.

Fadwa Alaoui was travelling with her five-year-old son, Youssef, who had recently finished chemotherapy treatments. Alaoui said she was going shopping in Vermont to buy Youssef a toy. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Refused entry for videos 'against America'

Both women said U.S. border agents asked to see their cellphones and requested their passcodes.

They then examined the phones for about an hour before taking each woman aside for questioning.

Boutaleb said the guard wanted to know about videos she had on her phone of daily prayers.

"To me, it seemed like he had ideas about Muslims, but I don't think his ideas are correct… He saw me with my hair visible and he asked if I wear the niqab. In all the photos on my phone, my hair is visible, but he still asked if I wear the niqab," she said.

Alaoui recounted a similar experience to CBC yesterday. She was also asked about the deadly shooting at a mosque in Quebec City and if she knew any of the victims, and what she thought of Donald Trump's policies.

Both women said they were ultimately denied entry to the United States because certain videos on their phones were deemed to be "against" the United States.

"I'm still in shock. I've never had this happen," Boutaleb said, adding this was her eighth trip to the U.S.

President Donald Trump's travel ban has been subject to legal challenges. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection said privacy laws prohibit discussion of individual travellers, but told CBC Wednesday that it does not discriminate on the entry of foreign nationals to the United States based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Travellers who feel they've wrongly been denied entry into the U.S. can file a written complaint on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

With files from Alison Northcott