The number of travellers from Canada hit with a long-term ban when trying to enter the U.S. has almost doubled, new data shows.
Between October 2018 and September 2019, U.S. border officers issued expedited removals — which "generally" result in a minimum five-year ban — to 616 travellers attempting to enter the U.S. by land from Canada. That's an almost 100 per cent increase compared with 312 in the previous 12-month period. The statistics were provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The spike in expedited removals — which are issued without a hearing — comes as no surprise to some immigration lawyers, who say that in their experience, suspect cases that used to result in a simple denied entry can now lead to a five-year ban.
"If they just think you're being sneaky, that's all it takes," said Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Andrew Hayes. "The benefit of the doubt is not being afforded to people."
CBP offered no explanation for the surge in expedited removals, telling CBC News there have been no recent policy changes.
But several lawyers told CBC they believe U.S. President Donald Trump's tough stance on immigration may be influencing U.S. border officers along the northern border.
"He gives the officers more comfort in issuing expedited removals, that they'll at least be backed up by the U.S. government," said immigration lawyer Len Saunders, whose office sits close to the Canadian border in Blaine, Wash.
Canadians residents made 25 million round-trips by vehicle to the U.S. from January to September 2019, a decline of 3.6 per cent from the same period in 2018.
'Followed all the rules'
Saunders said he's been swamped over the past six months with calls from distraught Canadians, questioning why they were issued a five-year ban.
"These aren't criminals," he said. "They may have a lack of documentation, they may be naive, but there's no justification under immigration laws to give a five-year bar to these Canadians."
He said all his clients fighting five-year bans tried to cross the U.S. border from Alberta or B.C.
Saunders's clients include Stephane Colle, who found his dreams of working in the U.S. on hold after he tried to enter the country from Alberta and got hit with a five-year ban.
"I don't think I deserve this," said Colle who lives in Saint-Eustache, Que. "I followed all the rules."
The 31-year-old earned two master's degrees at the University of Idaho while on a track and field scholarship. After finishing school and returning home to Canada in July, Colle received a job offer as an athletic trainer at a university in Iowa.
Armed with documentation from the university, he crossed the border from Alberta to Montana Aug. 2 to request a non-immigrant NAFTA professional (TN) work visa, which can be obtained at the U.S. border.
Even though "athletic trainer" wasn't on the list of accepted professions, the university had thought it would be applicable under the category of medical/allied professional.
However, it appears Colle's prospective job didn't qualify because CBP declared him an "immigrant without an immigrant visa" and issued him a five-year ban.
"I tried to apply for a job legally," said Colle, who feels the ban was unjustified.
"It's just hard for me to understand why this would even happen."
He plans to file for a waiver that would allow him to enter the U.S., but it will cost him close to $4,000 in lawyer and administrative fees, with no guarantees of success.
'I burst into laughter'
Kyle Kuchirka of Saskatoon is also baffled by his five-year ban. It was issued on Aug. 29 after he tried to cross the U.S. border between B.C. and Washington state to volunteer at an arts festival.
At the time, the 25-year-old actor was temporarily unemployed and didn't have documents to prove he was only volunteering. U.S. border law says Canadians don't need a visa to enter the country for volunteer work if they can prove that their work won't be compensated.
Kuchirka said he didn't know the rules and doesn't think his error should result in a five-year ban.
"The border patrol officer even said to me … I believe that you genuinely didn't know what sort of documentation you should have, but I have to bar you for five years," he said.
"I burst into laughter. I was dumbfounded."
Saunders said that previously in cases where someone erred with their documentation, U.S. border officer would typically just turn them back.
"Show me the violation," he said. "Just because you don't have proper documents does not justify an expedited removal, but that's how they're using it."
CBP wouldn't comment directly on Colle's or Kauchirka's case. It said that border officers make decisions on a case-by-case basis given the evidence at the time. Non-U.S. citizens "bear the burden of proof" to show that they're eligible to enter the U.S., said spokesperson Stephanie Malin in an email.
Lawyer Hayes said he's concerned the surge in five-year bans could inspire people to lie at the border to avoid raising any suspicions.
"By sometimes penalizing people that are honest — but get it wrong — it encourages other people to be dishonest."
Saunders said he hopes the U.S. re-examines its stance on issuing expedited removals at the northern border.
"It definitely is a black eye for the Americans, when you're looking at [it] from a Canadian standpoint."