Saskatchewan man barred from U.S. for 5 years after trying to volunteer at festival

A Saskatoon man says he’s been banned from entering the United States for five years after attempting to volunteer at an arts festival in Washington state this summer.

Kyle Kuchirka, 25, an actor and recent graduate of the University of Saskatchewan’s drama department, said he tried to cross the U.S. border between Abbotsford, B.C., and Sumas, Wash., on Aug. 29.

Kuchirka, who is also a set designer, said he was on his way to volunteer his skills at the Sh’Bang Art Festival near Bellingham, Wash. But he was questioned at the border by an agent, who then directed him to a side room inside the large customs building.

After more than four hours of questioning, he said, he was handed a document informing him he was prohibited from entering the U.S. for five years. “You do not have work authorization,” the document stated.

“Any answer I gave them just wasn’t enough,” Kuchirka said in an interview Monday. “I’m terrified of what the States is doing with their power.”

A growing number of Canadians have been issued travel bans in recent months, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and immigration lawyers contacted by CBC.

Lawyer Len Saunders told CBC News last week the bans are the consequence of so-called “expedited removals,” which are decided by an immigration officer and don’t go before a judge. He called them a “troubling trend” because of how arbitrary they can seem.

“Until recently, I never would have expected people to get these expedited removals so randomly,” said Saunders, who practises immigration law in Blaine, Wash., and has clients who have been banned.

“It’s very, very indiscriminate how they are doing this.”

Saunders said Canadian travellers may face questions at the U.S. border about their ties to Canada, such as home ownership, a permanent job, or money in the bank — to make sure they have reasons to return.

Kuchirka said he isn’t a security threat and has no criminal record.

Inside the customs building, Kuchirka said the guard told him he would be taking American jobs.

Kuchirka replied that he was a volunteer, and his only payment was free meals. He was paying all of his own expenses.

The guard left and he said he was forced to wait another hour.

Finally, the guard returned with the document and his passport — with the words “ordered removed” handwritten on one page.

Kuchirka said he couldn’t believe what was happening.

“They’re going to bar me for volunteering and helping their country put on some art festival. Are you kidding me?” he said.

Kuchirka was told he can appeal, but he isn’t sure he will. The application and legal fees are estimated to cost more than $3,000.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said there are many reasons to issue a five-year travel ban, but they don’t discuss individual cases.

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