OTTAWA — Fewer Canadians are being turned away at the U.S. land border in recent months despite mounting concerns that Donald Trump's immigration policies are making it much harder to cross, The Canadian Press has learned.
Refusals of Canadians at American land crossings dropped 8.5 per cent between October and the end of February compared with the same five-month period a year earlier, according to U.S. government statistics.
The total number of Canadian travellers denied entry also dropped: 6,875 out of 12,991,027 were refused entry, a refusal rate of 0.05 per cent.
Between October 2015 and February 2016, 7,619 out of 13,173,100 Canadian travellers were denied entry to the U.S., a refusal rate of 0.06 per cent.
The figures, confirmed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, contrast with recent anecdotal reports of Canadians denied entry into the U.S., with many placing the blame on the policies of the Trump administration, including its controversial attempts to ban arrivals from several predominantly Muslim countries.
A further breakdown of the border data shows a sharp drop in Canadian refusals at the U.S. border in the first two months of this year as 2,600 Canadian travellers were denied entry, compared with 3,500 for the same two-month period of 2016.
But Canadian immigration and civil liberties advocates caution the numbers don't tell the whole story.
Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman said he is fielding more calls than ever from people planning a trip to the U.S. and wanting to make sure they have the paperwork they need. The decreased rate of refusal could be just that people are now better prepared than they used to be, and so fewer are being turned away as a result, he said.
"People in Canada used to take it for granted that they could just go to the border . . . but that's no longer the case," he said.
"The heightened awareness because of all the publicity around immigration has led people to be much more cautious about crossing the border."
The new U.S. data doesn't disclose the specific reasons for refusals; there are more than 60 reasons someone can be turned away and so it's not clear whether there's been a change in why people are being turned back.
In the wake of Trump's first executive order governing immigration, 200 Canadian participants in the Canada-U.S. trusted traveller program NEXUS did have their express-entry cards temporarily revoked, but it was never clear whether they were also denied entry to the U.S. or were allowed in after going through normal security screening measures.
The fact that the numbers overall of people crossing the border are also down suggests more are also just staying home, Waldman said, a fact born out in recent days as a number of groups announced they were cancelling cross border trips.
Among them is Canada's largest school board which said Thursday it would stop the planning of future field trips to the U.S. indefinitely because of uncertainty about possible border restrictions.
The Toronto District School Board, which has 245,000 public school students, said it made the "difficult decision" because it believes students "should not be placed into these situations of potentially being turned away at the border."
For now, the board said it would carry on with 24 U.S. previously planned trips, but says all students will turn back if any students with appropriate documentation are turned away.
Earlier this month, Girl Guides of Canada said it would move pre-emptively to avoid uncertainty at the border by cancelling trips to the U.S. The organization said changes in U.S. travel regulations made it uncertain whether all Girl Guides will be able to enter the country, so it decided instead that none would travel.
How many people are being turned away isn't the only concern, said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
"The other concern is that there's been an increase in temporary detentions and increasingly invasive searches, including searches of electronic devices," she said.
"And so the numbers don't say anything about whether or not the number of searches have increased, (or) whether or not the amount of time that people are being detained at the border before they are being let through has changed."
The new U.S. Homeland Security chief, retired general John Kelly, told The Canadian Press earlier this month that if a traveller is stopped for additional screening, or is turned away, it may be because his name has turned up on a watch list, or there is a problem with his credentials.
"There is a reason why," he said. "It's not their race, it's not their religion, it's not the language they speak."
Mike Blanchfield and Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press