February 17, 2008
By Les Perreaux, THE CANADIAN PRESS
MONTREAL - Past indiscretions are coming back to haunt thousands of American travellers heading north as Canadian border guards use improved technology to screen for criminal records.
The sharing of computerized information and increased vigilance since Sept. 11, 2001, have led more than 18,000 U.S. citizens with criminal records to be turned away since 2003.
The records often date back to the distant past for offences like marijuana possession, assault and impaired driving.
The Canada Border Services Agency says the number of so-called "turnbacks" from the border has declined gradually in recent years. Some 3,430 people were turned away among 28.9 million visitors in 2006, compared with 5,876 who were denied entry among 35.5 million visitors in 2003.
But immigration lawyers operating on both sides of the border maintain they've seen a recent spike in complaints from rejected Americans.
"There is a net that has been cast that is catching all these minnows," said David Cohen, a Montreal-based immigration lawyer.
Randy Kutter, a firefighter from Princeton, Minn., who loves to fish Canadian waters, was convicted of driving under the influence in 1981 and 1986. Canadian authorities suddenly told him in 2006 he was no longer welcome in Canada, despite the fact he'd crossed the border at least 100 times since his last arrest.
He started a process to be declared rehabilitated by Canada, only to discover it was impossible because original documents attached to his 20-year-old record had long been destroyed.
"My situation is really frustrating," Kutter said in an interview. "I really respect your laws, and I really like to fish up there. The situation doesn't seem fair or necessary."
The 49-year-old has been back to Canada three times since he was declared inadmissible, paying $245 for a special visa on the first visit and relying on Canadian border guards to look the other way on two other occasions. He suspects he'll be red-flagged any day now, and his days of fishing in Manitoba and Ontario will be over.
Kutter, who was 22 and 27 when he was convicted, says he is a different man from the young party animal who got in trouble in the 1980s.
"The second one really got my attention," he said. "I rode the bus and my bicycle to my first date with my wife. I take it all very seriously now."
Cohen and other lawyers say they receive frequent inquiries from Americans with minor records who wonder what they have to do to get back into Canada. Many had travelled to Canada for years without a problem.
Cohen has received calls from professional athletes, airline pilots and truckers who were suddenly turned away. Cohen says 90 per cent of his calls are related to driving under the influence of alcohol, a crime that is treated as a misdemeanour in many U.S. states but is taken more seriously here.
Chris Williams of the CBSA pointed to the declining "turnback" statistics and said there is no crackdown.
"The laws haven't changed, each traveller is processed on a case-by-case basis, based on information they provide and information available to each officer," said Williams.
With the number of U.S. visitors plummeting from a high of 44 million in 2000 to 28.9 million in 2006, Toronto immigration lawyer Sergio Karas says the growing buzz about tough Canadian borders threatens to dampen tourism further.
"Some people who face the problem find a way around it, particularly when it involves their work," said Karas, the chair of the immigration section of the Ontario Bar Association.
"But there's a lot who say, 'To heck with it, I don't need to go to Canada."'
Detroit immigration lawyer Enrico Caruso tells of an American lawyer with a practice in Toronto who was turned back at the border because he was busted in his youth for scalping Detroit Red Wings tickets.
"The laws have not changed but there have been major changes in technology," said Caruso, who practises in Canada and the United States.
"Their databases are syncing up really well, so they see a lot more information on their computers."
But Caruso says visitors travelling in both directions face more questions crossing the border.
"The political climate on both sides says you need to toughen up your borders," Caruso said.
"When you have that, absolutely, they have to step up their diligence."
Visitors from the United States with minor criminal records dating back years can often obtain waivers from Canadian authorities that "rehabilitate" them and allow them to enter the country.
The process is reasonably simple but requires time and a paper chase, immigration experts say.
Karas' clients include a rock star who "was big in the 1980s but still draws a crowd" who was barred at the border for a reckless driving conviction eight years ago.
Karas said a trucker with an assault record from a bar brawl and a company executive who was found at fault for a fatal vehicle accident in the 1980s are also on his client list.
"This isn't just one segment of the population, the range of people who have this problem is huge."