U.S. border agents under microscope after Canadians denied entry

A lawyer working for a prominent civil rights organization in the U.S. says border patrol agents have been acting in “arbitrary and capricious” ways for years. But what can Canadians do if they're unhappy with their treatment at the border?

Questions abound after Montrealer travelling on Canadian passport told she needed immigrant visa

Manpreet Kooner holds up her Canadian passport and a document from U.S. border services at her home in Montreal's LaSalle borough. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

U.S. border patrol agents have been acting in capricious ways for years, a lawyer for a prominent civil rights organization said Tuesday in the wake of yet another high-profile case of a Canadian denied entry to the country.

Lia Ernst, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Vermont chapter, added that it's possible they have been emboldened since President Donald Trump took power in January.

"We've heard numerous stories across the country, long before this administration, of customs and border patrol agents acting in arbitrary and capricious ways and assuming unto themselves an authority and a power that they don't have," she said.

"It appears possible that that's been turned on to hyper drive, based on what the rhetoric coming out of the administration has been."

Montrealer Manpreet Kooner was turned away at the Vermont border Sunday. She said she was told she needed to get an immigrant visa from the U.S. Embassy before she could enter the U.S.

Visa requirement 'non-existent,' ACLU lawyer says

Kooner is a Canadian citizen and was travelling on a Canadian passport. Canadian citizens don't need visas to enter the U.S. except under certain circumstances, such as if they are planning to work there.

When Kooner arrived at the embassy, she said officials told her they found it "odd" that she was asked to get a visa and referred her back to the Department of Homeland Security.

"It strikes me as wholly inappropriate to deny entry to someone on the basis of a non-existent requirement for a visa," Ernst said.

Speaking in Montreal today, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale reiterated that the government is examining Kooner's case.

"When a Canadian presents themselves at the border with the proper documentation, they have every right to expect fair and respectful treatment. When we determine the full story, we'll be able to assess whether or not the situation unfolded in an appropriate way," he said.

Goodale said Monday that Anju Dhillon, the MP for Kooner's riding, would look into her case. A representative from Dhillon's office says they have reached out to her.

Discrimination at play?

A month ago, Goodale promised to look into a case similar to that of Kooner. 

A Brossard woman of Moroccan origin was turned away from the U.S. after being fingerprinted, photographed and questioned in detail about her religion and her views on Trump.

"It leads one to question what exactly is afoot here. And it's not a huge leap to imagine that it's discrimination at play, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, on the basis of religion, on the basis of race," said Ernst.

"It's not terribly surprising in light of the rhetoric we've been hearing around the country of late."

In a statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said the CBP has a zero tolerance policy toward "discriminatory activities," and encourages the public to report alleged incidents of unprofessional behaviour using its Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.

Travellers submit their complaints using an online form. Every complaint filed is investigated and resolved, according to the CBP.

Searching for answers

But what counts as a resolution? U.S. immigration lawyer Leslie Holman says that depends.

The process won't shed any light on what the nature of the issue is, she said.

She said in her experience, clients who benefit from the traveller redress program are people dealing with cases of mistaken identity or issues with criminal proceedings – people who know exactly what the issue is.

For people who don't know why they were turned away at the border, it's a bit of a shot in the dark.

"What I say to clients is: 'Submit it, but you don't know if it'll do anything,'" she said.

"If you stop having trouble, it's beneficial."

Holman said the process can take months. Some of her clients have received letters notifying them of the results of their complaints, but not all.

There's also no guarantee all subsequent trips to the U.S. will be problem-free.

The program is one of the only processes to get any answers from the CBP, so Holman said she will usually recommend her clients go through it. And even though clarifying murky situations is difficult, sometimes it should be, she said.

"Law-enforcement-sensitive information isn't revealed, and in real law enforcement situations it shouldn't be," she said.

"You want it to be hitting those people it should hit. The problem is when [it doesn't]. What is law enforcement? That's the problem."

Ernst from the ACLU-Vermont echoed that sentiment.

"Either people at border patrol are confused as to what the law is, or they are erecting false barriers to deny entry to people without an adequate basis."

With files from Jaela Bernstien and Steve Rukavina