Nadine Yousif wheeled her suitcase across the terminal at Pearson airport in Toronto. Her passport in hand, she could hardly wait to board her flight to begin her first trip to New York City.
Despite her excitement she felt a pit forming in her stomach as she approached the U.S. customs desk. She thought of the Iraqi passport she had left at home, choosing to travel with her Canadian one instead.
She stepped up to the booth and relinquished her passport.
“You were born in Iraq?”
Her heart sank as she proceeded to explain her dual citizenship to the customs officer.
Canadians travelling to the United States are still feeling apprehensive about U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban, even though the executive order has been struck down by the federal courts.
On Jan. 27, after barely a week in office, Trump signed an order to bar immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the country for three months.
After several tumultuous weeks in the federal courts in the U.S., the ban was refused as unconstitutional. The next move rests with the new administration, which can either appeal the ruling or issue a new executive order.
But just because the order has been quashed doesn’t mean the effects have died with it.
The precarious situation of immigrants in the United States has many keeping a wary eye on the White House and the Twitter-savvy thumbs of the president. Confused Canadians going south have no idea what to expect at airport or land borders, and many dual citizens are experiencing ethnical profiling at customs.
Yousif says that after the customs officer conducted the typical queries, he asked multiple questions about her Iraqi heritage.
“They asked me how long I’ve been in Canada and whether I ‘liked it’ here,” she said. “I felt singled out.”
She was able to board her flight without incident, but the experience made her “apprehensive, fearful and defensive.”
Not official, but still striking fear
Even though the ban is currently defunct, the sentiments and fears it raised loom as a question mark in everyone’s mind.
“Canadians should contact border services and give their names in advance,” said Julie Taub, an immigration lawyer. “The reality is the United States is much stricter than Canada.”
She says that even though the presidential order now holds no legal weight, the initial feelings remains and that is enough to increase border security.
The tension reaches far beyond longer lines at customs.
Ottawa resident Peter Brulé and his wife were travelling from Toronto to Florida in early February when the airport prescreening examined their passports for ties to one of the seven countries in question.
Both were born in Canada, both hold only Canadian passports.
“It was so intimidating,” said Brulé.
Peter Brulé says he and his wife experienced harsh treatment while flying to the United States.
“We were told to go to a computer terminal. It took my picture and scanned my finger prints, then a list of the seven banned countries appeared.”
Brulé says the kiosk probed for information about any affiliation with the countries.
Customs kiosks at Canadian airports
U.S. pre-clearance stations are common in Canadian airports, but they shouldn’t ask about the travel ban, said Jennifer Evanitsky, a communications officer at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Instead of completing a paper customs declaration form travellers scan their passport, take a photo using the kiosk and answers inspection-related questions,” she said. “The kiosks were never programmed during the executive order to ask if the traveller was from one of the seven designated countries in the executive order.”
This was not Brulé’s experience.
“I was so angry, I could only imagine how a person with a non-European last name or (non-white) skin felt.”
Evanitsky says U.S Border Protection only allows ethnic screening in exceptional circumstances and there are consequences for unnecessary breaches.
Yousif said her experience at Pearson airport hardly qualified as an exceptional circumstance, but she was still subjected to ethnic profiling.
The American Immigration and Nationality Act lists more than 60 reasons a person might be inadmissible to the country. It includes heath, criminal record and illegal entry, but never mentions country of origin as a reason to be denied.
However, Taub says border guards have a right to bridge into ethnicity.
“The increased security is completely legal, it’s the right of any country to control the flow of people into their country.”
The travel-ban confusion doesn’t seem to be affecting travel to our southern neighbour so far, even though the Ottawa airport’s January U.S. travel was the lowest it’s been in four years.
Still, while Canadian dual-citizens are protected should the ban become legal, an Ottawa immigration lawyer is urging cross-border travellers to prepare themselves for longer, more intense screening at airports and land borders.
The list of the seven proposed banned countries comes from a Senate report written during the Obama administration that selected the nations based on the number of terrorism-related crimes carried out in the U.S. by citizens of those countries. The report found that 380 of the 580 people charged with terrorism since 9/11 were not born in the United States.
Only 72 of those 380 individuals were from the collective seven countries.
Though 19 per cent of individuals charged were from those seven countries, their nations became the basis of the Trump administration’s call to block the borders.
The worry of Canadians extends beyond the border, as many have friends and family living in the star-spangled nation.
Yousif fears for her grandmother, an Iraqi citizen living in the U.S.
“We’ve been asking her not to leave the country, cause we don’t know if she’d even be allowed to come back in,” she said. “Even if the travel ban was struck down by the highest courts, it doesn’t change the fact that we now have this rhetoric floating around that says it’s okay to single out individuals from those seven nations, or have reason to be suspicious of them and their background.”
Approximately 8,000 people from the seven countries were granted Canadian citizenship in 2016 alone, according to Statistics Canada.
No official statistics have been released about the number of people detained or refused at Canadian crossings of the U.S. border.