Ottawa author detained by U.S. border guards says system 'broken'

Amal El-Mohtar is calling for the Canadian government to better protect its citizens from being harassed by American border guards while still on Canadian soil.

Amal El-Mohtar says guards took phone, asked her about Middle East connections

Amal El-Mohtar is seen here at her writer's retreat in New York, one day after she was forced to spend nearly 12 hours at Ottawa's Macdonald–Cartier International Airport after being detained by U.S. border officials. (Amal El-Mohtar)

An Ottawa author is calling for the Canadian government to better protect its citizens from being harassed by American border guards while still on Canadian soil.

Amal El-Mohtar, 32, says she was asked violating questions and had her luggage, journal and phone searched for hours by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa last week, forcing her to miss her flight to New York for a writer's retreat.

Ifonly the lottery were this kind of random.- Amal El-Mohtar, Ottawa author

"Something needs to give. The system has been broken for my entire adulthood," El-Mohtar told CBC News on the weekend.

"It's been broken and it only gets more broken and more terrible and something needs to be done to change it."

El-Mohtar said she burst into tears after the experience because she felt overwhelmed, and because she felt as though the questions had violated her family's privacy.

She put her story up on Twitter, garnering dozens of responses — and hearing from people who'd experienced worse.

Expects racial profiling

El-Mohtar, born and raised in Ottawa, has been crossing the border into the U.S. three to four times a year for at least the last five years because that's where many of her fans are.

With an Arabic-sounding name, she said she expects to be racially profiled, endure intense questioning and pat downs.

"Every time, I'd get the allegedly random extra screening. Every time. To the point where I'd always make jokes about, if only the lottery were this kind of random."

This time, however, she was sent for secondary screening, which she said was particularly degrading.

El-Mohtar said she arrived at the airport an hour and 40 minutes before her flight, but was sent to secondary screening where she was taken to a private room and detained for two hours.

Her bags were thoroughly searched, she said, and she was forced to provide her phone's unlocking code before it was taken from her.

She also said she was questioned about any trips she'd taken to the Middle East, as well as about her parents' background. She was asked to provide her siblings' birth dates and names, as well as whether they had any contacts in the Middle East.

Despite her numerous visits to the U.S., she'd only been sent for secondary questioning once before, in May, when she was flying out of Toronto.

She called Thursday's situation a violation — not only for her, but for her family.

"The thing that keeps upsetting me the most is that they've put me in a situation where I have to give them information about people who are not travelling and have not consented to me sharing this information," she said.

"But somehow they [feel they] have some right to it."

El-Mohtar said she's particularly worried about whether officers cloned or copied her phone after it was taken from her. She was handed a document titled "Inspection of Electronic Devices," which told her that her electronic device had been "detained for further examination, which may include copying."

She said she believes at least some of her phone's applications were affected.

Amal El-Mohtar was given this information sheet by U.S. Customs and Border Protection when they took her phone. A line on the sheet states electronic devices are being examined, "which may include copying." (Submitted)

Travellers can apply for redress

Aaron Bowker, the chief customs and border protection officer and public affairs liaison for the Buffalo field office, told CBC News he couldn't speak about specific cases.

He maintained, however, that travellers are not racially profiled.

"We understand that 99.99 per cent of travellers are law abiding, so [officers are] looking for that needle in a haystack. They're looking for that one person out of a massive crowd that they want to find," Bowker said.

"It's a hard job to do. So sometimes it does take that extra questioning. Sometimes it does take that extra secondary to make sure you get it right, because you don't get to do it over."

If travellers are unhappy with the screening process, they can seek recourse by contacting the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, Bowker said.

El-Mohtar said she'd applied for redress through that program after the incident in May, handing over multiple documents to prove her identity.

She said Saturday she doesn't feel there's been much benefit.

"I just end up caught in this limbo of not wanting to let the bad guys win by stopping myself from travelling. But also not wanting to let them steal my time the way that they are."