Toronto

U.S. red tape leaves nurse couch surfing in southern Ontario

A heartbroken Ontario-born nurse says U.S. red tape is preventing her from returning home to her teenaged son in Texas. Elaine Caldwell-Reeves says she's been working as a nurse in San Antonio, Texas for the past 23 years, raising a son there who recently turned 15.

After 23 years working as a nurse in the U.S., Ontario-born woman says she's no longer welcome there

Ontario-born nurse Elaine Caldwell-Reeves has taken a temporary job in an Orangeville call centre to make ends meet while she tries to unsnarl the red tape that has kept her from her son in Texas. (CBC)

A heartbroken Ontario-born nurse says U.S. red tape is preventing her from returning home to her teenaged son in Texas.

Elaine Caldwell-Reeves says she's been working as a nurse in San Antonio, Texas for the past 23 years and raised a son there, who recently turned 15.

She returned to Ontario in February to renew her work visa and expected to stay here just a day or so. But when she tried to cross back into the U.S. from Niagara Falls, Ont. on Feb. 16, Reeves says she was turned back by U.S. authorities there.

She's been couch surfing with Canadian friends in the Mississauga and Orangeville areas ever since.

"Luckily I have a good friends in Canada that have taken me under their wing and have taken me to their friends who were about to donate clothes to the Salvation Army," she told CBC Toronto. "I wound up being the recipient of those clothes."

Officials wanted proof of credentials, nurse says

More concerning though, she says, is being separated from her son.

"It's terribly painful," she said. "I'm very close to my son, and he's very close to me."

Elaine Caldwell-Reeves and her 15-year-old son Joshua. (Elaine Caldwell-Reeves)

Caldwell-Reeves says she's made the trip home to Ontario to renew what's called a TN visa every three years, as U.S. law dictates, and she has never had trouble returning there.

But this time, even though she's licensed to work as a nurse in the U.S., customs officials at the Rainbow Bridge wanted a visa screen — proof that her nursing credentials were genuine, she says, and demanded that she get them certified by a Pennsylvania-based company.

"They didn't want just my original diploma, they didn't want just my original transcripts. They wanted me to go to that credentialling company and prove they're not fraudulent documents," she said.

"After they've been doing this for 20 years and believing it, suddenly it's not good?"

Ontario certificate expired

That process has so far taken more than a hundred days, she said, and her money is running out. Now, she says, she could lose her job in the Texas, as well as her house there because she's been unable to make mortgage payments.

Her Ontario certification has long since expired, meaning she can't work as a nurse in her home province.

Her son Joshua is staying with friends in Texas, until she can make it back home, she said.

A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said last week that there have been no recent changes to U.S. policy that could have led to Caldwell-Reeves' problems.

Registered nurse applicants must present a certificate from the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS), the agency says. However, each application is evaluated by a separate inspecting officer, with the decision to approve or deny based on the merits of individual cases.