Students at Westmount High swap Washington trip for Toronto because of border fears

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Students at Westmount High swap Washington trip for Toronto because of border fears

The annual graduation trip for students at Westmount High School has been changed from Washington D.C. to Toronto and Niagara Falls because of worries that some Muslim students may be denied entry to the United States.

The school's principal, Michael Cristofaro, said the graduating class unanimously decided to stay in Canada.

"The best way to sum up their reaction would be to say, either the whole family goes or none of us go," Cristofaro told CBC News in an email.

Student Ariel Amstutz said that despite the change, the class was still expecting to have a great time.

"Most of us realized that even though we weren't going to the United States like we'd hoped, we were still going to have an amazing trip," Amstutz said. 

"We are all a family. We travel together, we're a pack."

The school is on March break this week, but a spokesperson confirmed over Facebook that the school's diversity left many students feeling that, given the political climate in the U.S., there was a chance some students wouldn't be welcome at the border.

One of the parents of a graduating student, Vanessa Sheppard, said the destination change is disappointing because many of the students have already been to attractions in the Toronto area.

Still, she said she understands why the students felt the need to look out for each other.

"It's a good, Canadian thing to do," Sheppard said.

Canadians told they need visa

On Sunday, Canadian citizen and Montrealer Manpreet Kooner was turned away at the Vermont border when trying to go to a spa in the U.S. She was told she would need an immigrant visa to enter.  

Kooner is at least the third Quebecer holding a Canadian passport to have been turned away from the U.S. border in recent weeks. All three have been visible minorities; two were Muslim. 

The three cases have attracted the attention of legislators in both the U.S. and Canada. Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale has already raised the issue with his American counterpart, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

Goodale has indicated he will raise the issue again when the two meet today in Ottawa. 

There are concerns U.S. border agents may be acting with less consistency since President Donald Trump took power in January.

His administration's attempts to limit travel from several Muslim-majority countries could have encouraged border agents to exert more discretion about who gets into the country, said one prominent civil rights group.  

"We've read that ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CPB (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) are feeling extremely empowered to take new measures and act in very broad and unfortunate ways with respect to detaining people or denying them entry," said Lia Ernst, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Vermont chapter

Other schools taking precautions

The uncertainty surrounding border crossings from Quebec into the U.S. has prompted other schools in the province to take precautions. 

A school board in the Lanaudière region said it will send a representative on school trips to the U.S. to accompany any children who are turned away at the border.

The move was necessary, the school board said, because there are few details about the criteria that now determines whether someone is allowed to enter the U.S.

"That's obviously something that could be traumatizing for a 12, 13 or 14-year-old student," said Éric Ladouceur, a spokesperson for the des Affluents school board. 

"So, of course, we want to take certain measures to help them get through that adventure."  

Another school board, this one in the Eastern Townships, has decided to leave an extra car parked near the border, in case chaperones need to drive students back home.