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Canadians shy away from US travel amid fears of discrimination

Canadian travelers have been cancelling plans to visit the United States, as civil rights lawyers caution US border officials may be emboldened by Donald Trump's rhetoric. Jillian Kestler-D'Amours reports from Toronto.

Fadwa Alaoui wanted to take her two young children and a cousin shopping in Vermont. But when Alaoui, a Moroccan-born Canadian citizen, got to the United States border, she says she was questioned about her Muslim faith and religious practices, and then turned back.

Yassine Aber, a 19-year-oldQuebec university athlete, was on his way to a track-and-field meet in Boston with his coach and teammates when officials at the US border pulled him aside. He said he was asked about his religious beliefs and his family's Moroccan roots, and eventually denied entry into the country.

Manpreet Kooner had planned a day at the spa when she was held at the border. Born and raised in Montreal to Indian parents, Kooner was reportedly told she needed an immigrant visa and could not enter the US on her Canadian passport alone.

Read: Refugees flee US on foot, seek safety in Canada

These are some of the most recent cases of Canadians who have been interrogated and held for hours at the US-Canada border before eventually being denied entry into the US.

Their accounts have led to growing concern across Canada about discrimination at the border and raised questions as to what regulations are informing US officials' decisions over who is admitted into the country.

'Rogue agency'

Liz Ernst, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of the northeastern state of Vermont said it's difficult to say whether these recent cases signal something new is happening at the Canada-US border, or whether they are simply getting more attention under US President Donald Trump's administration.

Cars line up to cross into the US at the US-Canadian border in Quebec

The number of people illegally crossing into Canada has been rising as Canadians reconsider travelling south

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency that controls border crossings into the US, "has long been seen by many as a rogue agency and that all predates this administration," Ernst told DW. "That being said, it certainly concerns us greatly," she added.

"We do worry that the rhetoric that's coming out of the administration is emboldening CBP agents to act in even more arbitrary and discriminatory ways than they have been known to in the past."

Asked to comment on why Canadians have been turned away at the border, CBP press officer Dave Long told DWthat he could not release information on specific cases due to US privacy protections.

Read: Canadians fear rising xenophobia, hate crimes in wake of mosque attack

He said CBP policies for travelers entering the US from Canada have not changed since Trump came into office, nor has the agency received any new regulations to follow at the US-Canada border.

"CBP policy prohibits discrimination against any traveler on the basis of religion, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual preference," Long said in an emailed statement.

 

A Canadian passport

Canadian passport holders generally don't need a visa to enter the US

In general, Canadian citizens only need to present a valid Canadian passport when crossing the US border, Long said.

In February, CBP processed more than 30.4 million people arriving in the US, and 274,400 of those travelers (less than one percent) were subjected to secondary processing, he added.

Up to individual officers

Yet while official US policies may not have changed, the appearance of bias at the border, combined with Trump's recent travel ban, has pushed Canadian travelers, schools and other groups to forego trips south of the border.

The US president signed a revised executive order earlier this month barring citizens from six, Muslim-majority countries from entering the US and temporarily suspending the US's refugee resettlement program. The order was frozen by a US judge before it could go into force. The administration has been attempting to have the block overturned. 

Read: Opinion: Words matter, US court tells Trump in welcome travel ban ruling

The travel ban does not affect dual citizens travelling on a Canadian passport who hold citizenship from one of the six banned countries, Canadian government spokesperson Scott Bardsley said.

"The decision to allow entry into the United States is made at the discretion of the US immigration officer," Bardsley told DW in an email. "There could be delays during the clearance process due to possible additional screening measures."

Girls Guides and schools rule out US

Concern about a lack of inclusivity was enough to prompt the Girl Guides of Canada to announce on March 13 it would suspend trips to the United States.

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"Our primary goal was to reduce the risk of our members encountering difficulties at the border and ensuring that no girl is left behind," the group said on its website.

The Toronto District School Board, Canada's largest school board, has followed suit, saying it would not book any new school trips to the US "given the uncertainty of these new travel restrictions and when they may come into effect."

"We strongly believe that our students should not be placed into these situations of potentially being turned away at the border," the board said.

A school board in Windsor, Ontario, across the border from Detroit, Michigan, also said it was reviewing its field trip policy, too, and a department at Ryerson University in Toronto cancelled US trips over similar fears, "The Toronto Star" recently reported.

Read: Travel ban, strong dollar seen putting damper on US tourism sector

"The treatment at the border is an important thing," Canada's Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale, recently said when asked about the concerns. "Canadians have the right to expect that they will be treated in a fair and respectful manner, as people travelling in the opposite direction have the right to expect that too."

Meanwhile, Ernst encouraged anyone who experiences problems at the border to contact the ACLU, which would help the organization establish a baseline to track what is happening.

"[US Customs and Border Protection] has been a deeply problematic agency for a very long time, and this fight is not new to the ACLU," she said.

"We're going to continue through this administration and all the ones to come. When we see an agency acting in unconstitutional and discriminatory ways, we're going to be there to push back."

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