A number of Canadian Muslims have been turned away at the Canada-U.S. border in recent weeks, immigration lawyers say.
Those denied entry include a prominent Guyana-born Toronto imam who serves as a chaplain with the Peel Regional Police and an Iraqi Turkmen community leader who has family members fighting ISIS in the Middle East.
The two men — who were denied entry at different border crossings and were not travelling together — are among at least six Canadian Muslim men who have been denied entry at the U.S. border over the last two weeks.
The men and their families, all of whom are Canadian citizens, were given little in the way of explanation by border officials for the decision to deem them inadmissible.
Neither Guyana nor Iraq are among the seven Muslim-majority countries subject to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order, which essentially blocks refugees and visitors from those countries from entering the U.S.
Both men were told to apply for visas at the U.S. consulate in Toronto before returning to the border to seek entry — an unusual process for people who hold Canadian passports.
The six men are represented by the Toronto-area immigration firm CILF — Caruso Guberman Appleby. Lawyers there say that if they’re seeing this level of activity at their law firm, there may be many other Canadian nationals facing similar problems at the border.
“We’ve seen a lot more in the last few weeks and we don’t know what to attribute it to. We know the climate there in the U.S. has changed, it’s a bit different, but at the same time there are processes and procedures and people should be afforded opportunities to challenge a case,” Daud Ali, a lawyer at CILF, told CBC News.
“But it’s hard to know what you’re going up against when you’re not told why you’re denied entry. The fact that they’re all Muslims, that raises some concerns about whether these people are being targeted or if this is a new form of some sort of ban …”
“Having worked as an immigration lawyer for over 40 years nothing surprises me anymore but, in all my years, I have never seen such a Kafkaesque scenario,” said Joel Guberman, a partner at the firm.
When asked if there has been a new directive in recent weeks with respect to Muslim travellers from Canada, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said the agency “has not had any new policy changes.”
While unable to speak to specific cases because of privacy laws, the CBP spokesperson said “applicants for admission bear the burden of proof to establish that they are clearly eligible to enter the United States. In order to demonstrate that they are admissible, the applicant must overcome all grounds of inadmissibility.”
No Canadian citizen has a “right” to enter the U.S.; entry happens at the sole discretion of the U.S. customs officers on duty — and they have a lot of latitude to ask questions to determine the admissibility of a foreign national.
CBP lists more than 60 grounds for inadmissibility divided into several major categories, including health-related reasons, criminality, security reasons, illegal entry and immigration violations, and documentation requirements.
Two of the six men denied entry have agreed to share their stories with CBC News to warn other Muslim Canadians about the complications that may arise when travelling to the U.S.
Imran Ally, a resident imam at the Toronto and Regional Islamic Congregation (TARIC) mosque for the last 20 years and a chaplain with Peel Regional Police, was travelling with his wife and three children to attend his best friend’s daughter’s wedding in the New York City borough of Queens. He was set to officiate.
Ally and his wheelchair-bound, special-needs son were held at the Peace Bridge crossing near Fort Erie, Ont., for more than five hours. They faced three separate rounds of questioning by plainclothes and uniformed officers. Some of the questions centred on his charitable endeavours related to resettling Syrian refugees.
Ally, a native of the South American nation of Guyana, was questioned about his work as a religious leader, photographed and fingerprinted and ultimately denied entry because he was told his name “matches that of a bad guy.”
He was driven back to the Canadian border by a police cruiser, cancelling his long-planned wedding role.
“I knew going to the U.S. for the first time wouldn’t be a red carpet welcome, I (knew) that I’d probably have to answer questions, I might even have to spend a long time. We were prepared for all of this, but never in my wildest dreams did I think they’d say I’m inadmissible because of my name,” Ally said.
“The way it was done — they really at the end made me feel like I’m a criminal.”
Nejmettin Vali, the vice-president of the Iraqi Turkmen community group in Toronto, was also denied entry at the Windsor-Detroit crossing in early August when he and his family were on vacation celebrating Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest of Islamic holidays.
Vali was travelling to Detroit for some cross-border shopping with his wife and children when he was pulled aside by American officials for a secondary inspection that went on for more than four hours.
Vali said he felt violated by the officers, who seized not only his cellphone but those of his wife and Canadian-born children. While being questioned, Vali said the officers refused to let him fetch food and medicine for his autistic daughter.
“I looked like a terrorist or something,” Vali said. “I have no criminal record, no jail, nothing. I’ve been a Canadian for twenty years and no problem, so I want to figure out what’s going on. I want to fight it — I feel like I have a bad name now because they didn’t let me inside.
“It’s sad. Everybody was just happy to go to the U.S. for, like, two hours for the shopping. That didn’t happen.”
Vali said the border guards didn’t tell him why he was denied entry but he said the officers were concerned about his semi-regular trips to Iraq, the country where he was born.
Vali said he travels to his native land often because he’s been supporting his three grandchildren there since his son — a former Iraqi police officer — was killed by ISIS forces.