What to expect when you cross the Canada-U.S. border

They can search your phone, delay you for hours or tell you to go back to Canada. Lately, the world’s friendliest border doesn’t seem so friendly.

There are plenty of reasons a Canadian can get turned away at the U.S. border: a criminal record, suspicion the person plans work illegally in America, or the discover the person is travelling with someone who is inadmissible count among the most obvious.

Then there are the more obscure, seemingly arbitrary reasons, like those a small-business owner from Lindsey, Ont. was left trying discern after being denied entry to the U.S. last summer—purportedly for failing to have the proper paperwork to bring yarn to a craft fair in Maryland. Never mind that she had gotten a sales tax licence from the state and consulted with U.S. immigration officials prior to arrival to make sure she had done everything by the book.

No wonder, then, that Canadians—be they cross border shoppers, snowbirds, or vacationers—wonder what to expect when they come face-to-face with U.S. border security. What will they be asked? How long could they have to wait? Is it possible to be turned away for some dubious reason?

“There’s no restrictions on what an officer can ask you because there’s no telling what will guide an officer to follow a particular line of questioning to determine if that traveller is admissible for not,” says Dave Long, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Buffalo, N.Y. And while that’s unchanged from long before Donald Trump took office, tales from the border since his inauguration clearly show some officers are taking their unrestricted-question mandate down odd paths.

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Last year, Sardar Ahmad, a Canadian citizen and family doctor in Sarnia, Ont., was held up at the border for five hours to answer questions that included which “tribe” he was part of in his birth country of Afghanistan, and who his tribal chief was. It didn’t matter that Ahmad only wanted to cross the border briefly before his work shift, so he could visit the Nexus office to find out why his border crossing card had, suddenly and without explanation, been revoked.

It’s not just a one-sided Q&A either. Border officers can ask to see what’s on your phone just as they can ask to see what’s in the trunk of your car. Phone’s locked? They’ll ask for the passcode. Signed out of social media accounts? They can ask for your Facebook password. “If you don’t provide it, they’ll just turn you away,” says Mark Belanger, a Vancouver-based lawyer with Border Solutions Law Group. “And you should assume they’re going to a keep a record of everything on your phone. It’s the U.S. government. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than the U.S. government.”

That’s something Yassine Aber learned the hard way in February 2017—mere weeks at Donald Trump became president. The Canadian-born track and field athlete studying at University of Sherbrooke was denied entry into the U.S. from Quebec after border security took his phone and combed through his Facebook photos. There, officers found an old group wedding photo where Aber was next to someone who—long after the photo was taken—was suspected of fleeing to Syria to fight with terrorists. That Aber hardly knew him didn’t matter. His track teammates got the green light to continue onwards for the meet in Boston; Aber was left to wait at a nearby town until his brother could pick him up.

“A warrant or probable cause, it doesn’t exist at the border,” Belanger explains. “These border guards don’t need that. If you don’t provide it, they’ll just turn you away.”

So, just to be safe, should those going on short trips across the border think about leaving behind their regular phones in favour of a pre-paid cell phone—avoiding the chance of the U.S. government getting access to your baby photos and family contact info? That too, alas, is likely a red flag. “It looks sketchy to me to show up with a burner phone,” Belanger says. “There’s only a few people I know who would carry a burner phone and they’re usually not doing legitimate stuff.”

Worried about privacy? Don’t bring a phone at all. “Not having a cell phone would not be any reason for alarm,” says Dave Long, the CBP spokesperson. “Unless if you were going down to a cell phone convention.” And at his border crossing in Buffalo, they’re not holding many people back to look at electronic devices. “If we stopped everyone and asked to go through all their phones, we’d have a line of people going back to Muskoka,” Long adds.

Suffice to say not every person is being turned away or searched so diligently. Out of 1.2 million people who try to enter the U.S. every day from any of its borders, Long says the CBP will deny entry to somewhere between 300 and 600.

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Yet those being stopped at the border in recent weeks seem to have something in common. Last year, Fadwa Alaoui, a Moroccan-born Canadian citizen, told media she spent four hours at the Quebec-Vermont border answering questions about her religion and her opinions about Donald Trump. She was eventually denied entry for what she hoped was a fun day of cross-border shopping with her adult children.

Or there’s Montreal born-and-raised Manpreet Kooner, who is of Indian descent and was held up six hours last year at the border before getting denied entry, and told she needed an immigrant visa if she wanted to ever get in—a rarity for a Canadian-born citizen. Her white friends with whom she was planning hang out for the day at a Vermont spa had no such trouble.

“Our officers don’t [profile],” insists Long, the CBP spokesperson. “That is absolutely prohibited by CBP policy.”

Belanger thinks otherwise. “Let’s say you’re a dual national Canadian and Iranian, you’re going to get a lot more vetting than if you were just a Canadian citizen,” he counters. “They do profile. Of course they’re going to say they don’t, but they do. We all know that.”

The latest concern for Canadians—at least those who’ve ever smoked marijuana—is what might occur if a border officer asks about cannabis consumption. Yes, weed is legal across Canada and many U.S. states, but don’t bother telling that to American border officials, as possession and sale of it still violate U.S. federal law.

One Canadian investor found out the hard way. “He was travelling straight from Vancouver to Vegas. When they found out he was going down to tour the marijuana facility and that he was an investor in marijuana, they gave him a lifetime ban,” Len Saunders, an immigration lawyer based in Wash., told the National Post.

What’s a pot user to do—even if he or she only tried it once and didn’t inhale? The simple answer is, well, don’t answer. Politely, that is.

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“Just say, ‘I’m not going to answer that question,’” Saunders previously told Maclean’s. “The worst they can do is deny you entry, and then you try to cross again a month later.”

And if you get denied entry—or make a fuss at the border—it’s possible there will be a mark on your permanent record, so to speak. Belanger says three things can happen when someone fails to cross the border. First and most typically, he says, a border agent can turn you away for whatever reason and ask you to come back with certain documentation, otherwise leaving your file because the concern is not important enough to warn other officers.

But if they consider the issue more serious, Belanger says, they’ll put a so-called “TEC hit” on your file. “It’ll alert officers at the front line that you should be sent to secondary for further investigation. Then in secondary, the officers inside will do a more thorough background check.”

The third possibility—the rarest but also worst-case scenario for a traveller, according to Belanger—is the agent gives you a nine-digit “Alien” number that they physically write in the back your passport: “They’ve literally opened a dossier on you at the point. You have an active file with lots of information and they’re investigating you.”

In January 2017, when Sasha Dyck explained to border officers that his car of passengers was heading Washington D.C. to take part in the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration, he says they were all immediately sent to secondary. “They took phones, told us to unlock our phones and had us wait while they fingerprinted and photographed us one by one,” says the nurse from Montreal. After two hours of waiting and some of their group being asked if they were planning to sow disruption, “they gave us our phones back and a piece of paper to present at the Canadian border and said: ‘You’re not welcome this weekend.”

It was a disappointing start (and end) to the trip. But Dyck also remembers a time when both he and a U.S. border officer shared a moment of optimism at the Canada-U.S. boundary: eight years prior at Barack Obama’s first inauguration. When Dyck got to the border in 2009 and said he was heading to D.C., “I literally got high-fived by the border guard.”

Note: this post was updated on Dec. 4, 2018

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