Tons of people cross the U.S. border everyday. But that doesn’t mean some don’t face issues.
Here's the good news. There are resources you can turn to and follow some basic practices next time to ensure your crossover is smooth.
B.C. resident Mohammad Khan has helped family and friends navigate through border difficulties. Recently, he posted about this on a local private Facebook group and received many messages soon after.
According to Khan, it's difficult to exactly determine why you are being scrutinized.
“They always say things like national interest and national security,” he said.
People who are referred to a secondary screening are given a yellow slip first and their fingerprints and photo are taken, which he said are forwarded to the FBI in Washington. The process can take anywhere from five minutes up to one hour.
After seeing the secondary inspection area, Khan offered the following estimate: “95 percent people are brown and [the] majority of those are Muslims. So this is not a coincidence. There is an unwritten policy of extra screening—that some groups have to to go through more than the others.”
He suggested the most common reasons are your travel patterns, your name, and sometimes your appearance. In many cases, if you have travelled to a Muslim-majority country, that can raise an eyebrow.
“Sometimes, they have a matching name to someone already flagged on the system. If you have a Muslim name and a common name, anything that could be a Khan or Ahmed or Abdul.”
There are official resources available that people may not already know of and can be useful if you've been facing problems at the U.S. border.
You can file a grievance with DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.
According to the website “People who have been denied or delayed airline boarding; have been denied or delayed entry into or exit from the U.S. at a port of entry or border crossing; or have been repeatedly referred to additional (secondary) screening can file an inquiry to seek redress.”
Once you file an inquiry, your updated status should be available online within seven to 10 days. If your complaint is sent via mail, it can take up to 10 to 15 days.
DHS TRIP is a good resource as it helps travellers rectify any fallacies in their government records and aims to ensure people have a sound travel experience. However, the program is under no obligation to disclose information that may be within “federal watch lists” or any “law enforcement-sensitive information”.
A second option is filing a Freedom of Information Act request with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). FOIA comes in handy if you wish to make requests for federal agency records. As per the federal law that recognizes the public’s right to know, “you can obtain previously released records, generate reports, and there is an option to receive records electronically."
One thing to remember is that FOIA only applies to federal agencies, and not to records held by Congress, courts, or state and local government agencies. In addition, each state has its own public access laws that should be referred for access to state and local records.
In situations where the issue occurs on this side of the border with Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), there is a solution.
You can file requests under Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) Online Request. Requests made under the Privacy Act are free of cost. Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and any individuals present in Canada are eligible to submit them.
“Most government information is available," the website states. "Major exceptions are Cabinet documents and information that could be injurious to Canada’s security or economy, federal-provincial relations and international affairs.”
You can easily obtain your personal information under the Privacy Act. In cases of trying to access other people's information, you need to get their consent first or can obtain if it is in the public interest.
According to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, charter rights at border points “continue to apply but are limited by state imperatives of national sovereignty, immigration control, taxation and public safety and security”.
Khan also offers some basic prevention tips to his circle. They might sound obvious but it is still worthwhile to be mindful of them in case you have overlooked any one thing.
He advises people to ensure that their car is clean and there isn’t anything that can draw suspicion. He feels body language is crucial to keep in mind as “anything you say can be used against you”, so be professional and courteous. And it is good practice for whoever is communicating to prepare answers so as to avoid stumbling.
Khan understands how frustrating it can be when one is pulled over for a secondary screening for no apparent reason but he says it is important to follow instructions, keep your cool, and be respectful of authority.
“People at the border have unprecedented powers [more than the police]. They have the right to search your phone, your car, sometimes even hold you in detainment for 48 hours without any charge,” said Khan.
He also emphasizes to “delete anything offensive from your phone, any WhatsApp conversation, any pictures in your gallery that may lead to further questioning”.
Even though this is a commonly a topic of discussion within immigrant communities, the larger public might not be aware that there are people for whom crossing the border isn’t that easy and could actually be something they worry about.
“It happens to many people but they are too embarrassed to talk about it," Khan said. "It is one of those things where they don’t want to admit that it has happened to them. There is a certain stigma attached to it.”