Canadians Feel A Frost At The Border

Why entering the U.S. is becoming a white-knuckle experience

When Neil G. Shearer, a painting contractor and yacht pilot, tried to cross the Canadian border into Washington last August, he figured it would be like dozens of other crossings he has made. How wrong he was. He was detained for 2 1/2 hours in a windowless room, had his car seized and then was banned from entering the U.S. for five years. His offense: trying to cross at another location after an inspector had turned him away for insufficient proof that he lived in Vancouver. "My persistence was stupid," says Shearer, 31. But he adds his real problem was "being stopped by some officious person in a bad mood."

Shearer, like at least 359 Canadians hit with five-year bars in the past year, ran afoul of a new immigration law that is a bete noire north of the border. At least 18,000 would-be entrants to the U.S. from Canada have been turned away by gun-toting immigration officials since April 1997, when the law took effect. "The legislation has allowed an immigration officer to become the judge, jury, court reporter, and ultimately executioner," says Toronto immigration lawyer Heather N. Segal.

American immigration authorities, while defending the law, are trying to deal with the Canadian objections. Ambassador Gordon D. Giffin pleaded in March to Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy to not let a "few misunderstandings" impede relations. And on Apr. 22, Immigration & Naturalization Service officials told lawyers and reporters in a coast-to-coast videoconference that they are training their inspectors to treat visitors more professionally.

Critics say the problem is the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act itself. Aimed at Mexicans who might try to turn a tourist trip to the U.S. into permanent residency, it applies equally to the Canadian border, where illegal immigration is far less common. And Canadians claim the measure has turned border crossings into white-knuckle experiences.

INS officials say only 7% of those who could be barred have been. Still, the penalties often seem severe. Steven Williamson had invested $210,000 in a construction-equipment business in Arizona. En route, he planned to stay with friends in Denver, before starting his venture. By the time he got to Phoenix, Williamson thought, a required investor visa would have come through. He told officials a half-truth, saying he planned to visit friends. But they found business paperwork in his car and accused Williamson of planning to work illegally.

Both Williamson and Shearer make chilling claims about their experiences. They say officers forced them to sign self-damning statements. Williamson says that when he protested, he was told he would be jailed. When he wrote he was being made to sign under duress, he says the immigration officer ripped up the paper and walked around him with his hand on his gun. He was ultimately banned from the U.S. for five years, as Shearer was. Unprofessional behavior won't be tolerated, says INS spokesman Russell A. Bergeron Jr. Williamson and Shearer are parties to a suit brought in the U.S. by the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., challenging the 1996 law.

POWER PLAY. The case is bringing out more horror stories. On Apr. 6, six power-line workers invited south by Florida Power & Light Co. for job screenings were kept off their flight even though FP&L had advertised the jobs in a Toronto paper, paid for the men's tickets, and planned to help them get any required visas. Martin Briggs, one of the six, says an official who detained him for 4 1/2 hours declared: "There's no way in hell that you or any Canadian lineman is going to go down to the States and take a job away from an American."

The INS says much of the problem in Canada is a "media frenzy." But they're not convincing nervous Canadians. "You can't tell them anything negative, period," advises Eric S. Winters, president of computer firm MIS Consultants, whose staffers frequently cross the border for business. These days, Winters and other Canadians are wondering just what Canadian-U.S. amity means.

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