Turned away at border, pregnant couple stranded in New York's coronavirus 'war zone'

She's Canadian. He's American. Their baby is due in August, but when they tried to flee New York City for the relative safety of Ottawa, they were turned back at the border.

Ottawa woman's American husband refused entry to Canada despite exceptions for family

Thomas and Erika Lavelle tried to cross the Canada-U.S. border on April 17. The Lavelles, who currently live in New York City, are due to give birth to their first child on Aug. 23. (Erika Lavelle)

A pregnant Ottawa woman says she's stranded in New York City with her American husband after Canadian border officials refused to let the couple enter the country together.

Expecting their first child and fearful of the dire situation in New York, where the death toll from COVID-19 has now surpassed 10,000 and hospitals are overwhelmed with sick and dying patients, Erika Lavelle and her husband Thomas decided to flee to Ottawa, where Lavelle's parents — her father is a physician — had a spare apartment waiting for them.

It was [among] the most disappointed I've ever felt in my country.- Erika Lavelle

The couple, who both work in the high-tech industry in New York, planned to quarantine in the apartment. If the situation in the U.S. didn't improve by their due date of Aug. 23, the Lavelles were going to remain in Ottawa and give birth in the relative safety of the Canadian health-care system.

Erika Lavelle, now six months pregnant, described the current situation in New York hospitals as a "war zone."

"If we were to contract a severe case of COVID-19 [in New York], or if there was to be an emergency with the baby, how do we deal with some medical issue in this current state?" she asked.

Turned away

On April 17, their car packed with enough supplies to last them 14 days in isolation, the couple headed for the Canada-U.S. border crossing at Thousand Islands.

"The border officer asked why my husband was coming into Canada," Lavelle said. "I said, 'He's accompanying me because he's my husband and I'm not able to do a lot of things now, lifting things, unpacking things.'"

"At the time I was more than five months pregnant. Given he and I were going to be in quarantine together, I would need his help and obviously as support for one another."

Erika Lavelle speaks to Radio-Canada via video chat from the the couple's New York home. (Radio-Canada)

But the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officer refused to allow Thomas Lavelle entry.

"He said they deemed this reason not essential. My husband would have to return, but I, as a Canadian, could stay. We were absolutely shocked."

Exceptions for family

The federal government order prohibiting entry into Canada during the pandemic makes clear exceptions for immediate family members, including spouses of Canadian citizens or permanent residents, as long as they don't show symptoms of COVID-19 or their trip isn't deemed to have an "optional or discretionary purpose, such as tourism, recreation or entertainment."

On March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also made it clear that immediate family members of Canadian citizens would still be allowed entry.

The couple tried to convince the border official of that, but to no avail.

"We took our phones out, we pulled up the [Government of Canada] website," Lavelle said.

Lavelle said she was in tears as they turned their car around and headed back to New York City.

Ronalee Carey, the couple's immigration lawyer, said their case is not unique. (Radio-Canada)

'Complete discretion'

The couple's immigration lawyer, Ronalee Carey, said they have little recourse available to them.

"Border officers have complete discretion, and there is still no oversight body for CBSA," Carey said. "You are allowed to complain to the agency itself, who will then look at the behaviour of its own officers. But that's not very convincing for people that they are going to get a resolution to their issue."

This was clearly not optional or discretionary. This was for the health of his wife and his unborn child.- Ronalee Carey, immigration lawyer

Carey said there's no doubt in her mind that Thomas Lavelle should have been allowed to accompany his wife.

"He wasn't coming to Canada for an optional or discretionary purpose," she said. "This was clearly not optional or discretionary. This was for the health of his wife and his unborn child."

Carey points out that since the couple's attempt to cross the border, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has published guidelines specifically mentioning family reunification during the pandemic as grounds for acceptance.

However, CBSA continues to warn foreign spouses and partners that "now is not the time" to enter the country.

Carey said the couple's case is far from isolated. Another immigration lawyer told Radio-Canada about a client who had called ahead to ensure she'd be allowed to enter Canada to stay with her daughter, only to be turned away at the border.

In response to Radio-Canada's questions about the Lavelles' predicament, CBSA wrote in an email Wednesday: "To enter Canada, a foreign national spouse and/or other immediate family member of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident must demonstrate that their travel is essential.... If travel of the immediate family member/spouse is deemed non-essential they will not be allowed to enter Canada."

That's stronger language than the federal government's, which refers only to preventing "optional or discretionary" travel, and doesn't specify travel must be "essential."

In the meantime, the couple remains stranded in New York, the North American epicentre of the pandemic, with their due date fast approaching.

Erika Lavelle said they'd still like to come to Canada, but are unwilling to attempt another border crossing without a guarantee they'll both be granted entry.

"When we were turned around I was feeling helpless, powerless. So it was [among] the most disappointed I've ever felt in my country," she said.

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