How to avoid getting stuck at U.S. border points when travelling for business


Just minutes before it was due to take effect last Wednesday, a federal judge blocked President Trump’s latest travel ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority countries.

But ever since the first ban (also blocked), several high-profile incidents have emerged of people being detained at a U.S. border for having even a tenuous connection to the Muslim world, creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among business travellers.

The concern isn’t altogether misplaced, says Vancouver immigration lawyer Mark Belanger. “There’s definitely increased vetting,” he says. Business or leisure travellers of all ethnic backgrounds can expect to answer more questions and be asked for proof to back up their answers.

“If you have some ethnicity from the Middle East or Southeast Asia or any of the other countries that are not highly trusted,” Belanger says, “you should prepare as though you may face even more questioning.”

Since business travellers usually can’t just opt not to go to the U.S., it helps to know what to expect and be prepared if you’re stopped at the border. “When you’re confident in knowing that you’re on the right side of the law and you’re entitled to entry, you’re not as nervous,” Belanger says.

Back it up with paperwork.

Almost everyone crossing the U.S. border gets asked where they’re going and what they’ll be doing. “It’s not like one thing you say or do will raise a red flag for the CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officer,” Belanger says. “It’s a fluid thing. That’s all the more reason to be prepared.”

Paperwork that proves the truth of your claims is a big help. Even tourists should bring an itinerary. But “at a bare minimum, I would recommend business travellers carry a letter from their company that details where they’re going, how long they’re going for, who’s paying them and most importantly, what they’re doing,” advises Toronto immigration lawyer Melodie Hughes Molina, of PwC Law LLP. “Even if you’re not asked for it, you should have it in your pocket.”

Some business travellers require a visa as well. The rule of thumb: “If you’re entering the labour market (in the U.S.) or engaging in activities that are deemed to be competitive with the labour market, you will need a work visa,” says Hughes Molina.

If, on the other hand, you’re going to a general meeting, trade show or on a sales call for a product made outside the U.S., you probably don’t need a work permit as long as you’re not receiving a salary or income from a U.S.-based company. Unsure of your status? “You should probably consult with a lawyer,” says Hughes Molina.

The dreaded secondary inspection.

If something comes up that causes a border guard to question your admissibility to the U.S., you’ll be sent for secondary inspection. “You’ll have to pull your car over if you’re driving through the port of entry or you’ll be ushered to another room at the airport,” Belanger says. “The presumption is that you don’t qualify and the burden of proof is on you to overcome that.”

It’s natural to get ruffled. “After all,” says Belanger, “the CBP officer has a gun. And we’ve all heard horror stories about people being turned back at the border.” But strive to keep your cool. “Nervousness appears as dishonesty in the eyes of the CBT,” he says. “The common thinking is ‘Why are they nervous?’ or ‘What are they hiding?’ ”

Don’t respond by blustering (“Don’t you know who I am?”) or fibbing under pressure. “The worst thing you can do is lie,” says Hughes Molina. If you’re charged with misrepresentation, you may not only be denied entry today, “you may be barred from entering the country for any purpose for two to 10 years.”

And nix the idea of testing another, potentially more lax, border crossing. “Border officials share common technology and systems, so information entered at the airport is often visible in real time at the land border crossings,” says Hughes Molina. The so-called “border shoppers” are likely to find themselves in more hot water.

What are your rights?

If you were born in one of Trump’s six banned countries, but you hold a Canadian passport, “the executive order indicates they will assess entry based on the passport you’re travelling with,” says Hughes Molina.

But a Canadian passport isn’t a ticket to ride. A CBP officer has “a lot more power than a police officer,” says Belanger. “They have an immigration judge’s ability to exclude you from the country or remove you from the United States. And they have extensive enforcement authority.”

Border guards can also detain you without reasonable suspicion, search you without a warrant, and ask for passwords for electronic devices and social media accounts.

You, on the other hand, have the right to refuse to hand the information over. “They’re not going to let you in that day. And they probably won’t let you in tomorrow until you give them what they want,” says Belanger. “But you can go home and there’s no ban put in place. You can call a lawyer, get your ducks in a row, get your papers ready and go back.”

Camilla Cornell is a business writer and intrepid traveller, who nonetheless appreciates a little comfort when away from home.

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