Travelling to the U.S.? Don't worry about the border, says Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly

Canadians travelling south for spring break should not worry about recent media reports describing U.S. border officials turning away people based on their ethnicity or religion, but they should double-check their pockets before they leave, says the homeland security secretary.

"When someone is stopped at the border and questioned, or turned back, which is not very common, there's a reason why," John Kelly told CBC News Network's Power & Politics. "What they say to the press is their business."

Kelly said that his administration could help to clarify those media reports by revealing the genuine reasons why a person has been turned back, but he is more concerned with respecting the privacy rights of Canadians than he is about positive press.

"We won't do that because, again, the privacy rights of the citizens of this great country are too important," Kelly said.  

Kelly is the first member of U.S. President Donald Trump's cabinet to travel to Canada to hold meetings with his Canadian counterpart, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. One of the issues central to those meetings Friday was the rising number of asylum seekers illegally crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada.

"We're both — your country, my country, your ministers and myself — trying to get our arms around exactly what's going on, because it's a different phenomenon," Kelly told host Rosemary Barton.

"It's a very different phenomenon than anyone has seen in the past," he said.

Kelly said the movement north "could be" a reaction to Trump's executive orders prohibiting people from entering the U.S. if they are from one of the Muslim-majority countries the administration has put on its restricted list.

"It could be," Kelly told Barton. "I think you could draw that conclusion."

"I'm undecided, but to come [to the U.S.] legally, from any country, and then almost immediately push on to Canada is something I don't quite understand, but it could be."

Travel ban or Muslim ban?

Trump's first travel ban prohibited people from seven Muslim-majority countries from coming to the U.S. It was subsequently halted by a judge, prompting the president to issue a second executive order on Monday.

The second order removed Iraq from the list of banned countries, but visa processing for travellers from Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya will be suspended for 90 days once the ban goes into effect on March 16.

Kelly brushed off criticism that the travel restrictions were a Muslim ban, saying former president Barack Obama had identified the same countries as those of concern because they are "failed states" and/or "state sponsors of terrorism."

"The other aspect is there are 51 overwhelmingly Muslim countries on the Earth, we put seven, now six on that list," Kelly said. "Of the 1.7 billion Muslims on the Earth those six countries represent a relatively small number, and this is not forever, this is just to give me time to develop some additional vetting."

Border where it needs to be

Goodale said Friday's meeting in Ottawa "proved to be extremely important and extremely valuable," as Kelly met with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and the rest of the cabinet committee responsible for Canada-U.S. relations.

"It covered everything from border issues to immigration concerns, to steel and pipe exports from Canada to the United States, it was a very broad-ranging discussion," Goodale told reporters earlier in the day.

A key issue for both governments is the Canada-U.S. border and how to maintain security while keeping the flow of trade moving.

"I take a good deal of encouragement by the first remark that was made by Secretary Kelly as our first meeting began this morning, in which he simply said his objective is to find the ways to make the border thinner and to work well for both countries," Goodale said.

"That's a very important signal about the relationship that we have."

Checking your pockets

Kelly said that he had no concerns about the security of the Canada-U.S. border because there is such effective co-operation between both countries, not only in terms of information sharing, but in working together daily to police the border. 

"The U.S.-Canada border is, in my opinion where it ought to be and that is all about two very, very close friends sharing an awful lot of cross border activity," Kelly told Barton.

Considering Canada's plans to legalize marijuana for recreational use this year, Kelly was asked if he anticipated legal pot north of the border creating problems for how and when they let Canadians into the U.S.

"Probably not," he said, noting some states have themselves legalized weed, although he did offer one cautionary note. 

"I would just highly recommend Canadians to just check those pockets one more time."