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Crossing the U.S. border brings more trepidation

Uncertainty over rules pushed by Trump make some Canadians uneasy at the prospect of going south for business or pleasure
Canada-U.S. border
Cars bound for the United States from Canada enter customs and border inspection in Blaine, Wash. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

By Todd Humber

Are you still comfortable travelling to the United States? Because a growing number of Canadians seem to be taking a pass, or at least a wait-and-see approach, in the wake of the controversial Trump travel ban.

I’ll be honest — I cancelled a trip to Michigan because of it. A group of friends had planned to go to Frankenmuth for the Family Day weekend in February, but we refunded our hotel stay and turned it into a staycation instead.

As Canadians, we have no right to vote in the U.S. or any say in their politics, but we can certainly choose where to spend tourism dollars.

The travel ban, which at press time was in its second version and was still blocked by the courts, would restrict travel from six predominantly Muslim nations to the U.S. under the guise of national security concerns.

A number of Canadian groups have made headlines for their refusal to cross the border anymore. One school board near the border city of Windsor, Ont., cancelled all field trips to the U.S.

“Paramount for us is student safety,” said Clara Howitt, a superintendent with the Greater Essex County District School board. “We really don’t know what will happen to our students at the border.”

A spokesperson for the board put it even more bluntly: “Where one person doesn’t go, nobody goes… we want to make sure nobody is excluded.”

The 90,000-member-strong Girl Guides of Canada have also joined the chorus, cancelling all trips south of the border. They made pains to say the move wasn’t a political protest, but it’s hard not to read between the words — even airport layovers are out of the question.

“While the United States is a frequent destination for Guiding trips, the ability of all our members to equally enter this country is currently uncertain,” said a statement. “This includes both trips that are over or under 72 hours and any travel that includes a connecting flight through an American airport.”

Just last week, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) announced it was suspending any new trips to the U.S. because of uncertainty over the ban. Trips currently planned are a go - for now - but that could change if Trump’s executive order is fully implemented, it said.

“We do not make this decision lightly, but given the uncertainty of these new travel restrictions and when they may come into effect, if at all, we strongly believe that our students should not be placed into these situations of potentially being turned away at the border,” it said in a statement.

It also made it clear that, for already approved trips, if one student “with the appropriate documentation” is denied entry for no legitimate reason, the entire trip will return to Toronto and not proceed.

A couple school boards and one organization might not make tourism professionals hit the panic button, but they’re the tip of the iceberg.

The U.S. Travel Association has warned there are “mounting signs… of a broad chilling effect on demand for international travel to the United States.”

In real numbers, that looks like this — New York City alone is expecting to welcome 300,000 fewer visitors in 2017 than it did in 2016, according to NYC & Company. How unusual is that for the Big Apple? Well, it’s the first time since the Great Recession in 2008 that the figure is expected to drop. And, spoiler alert, we’re not exactly in a recession.

Another bellwether: A travel booking tracking firm called ForwardKeys is reporting a 6.5 per cent drop in international bookings to the U.S. That’s bad news for an industry that supports 15.1 million jobs and generates US$2.1 trillion in economic impact.

It boils down to one word that does not belong in the employer’s dictionary: Exclusion.

Many firms in the U.S. have taken sides in this battle, arguing — in no uncertain terms — that the travel ban is discriminatory. We’re talking industry giants — Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and more than 90 other corporations banded together to file briefs in support of state-sponsored challenges to the first iteration of the ban.

“Ultimately, American workers and the economy will suffer as a result,” said the companies, according to Reuters.

Business travel for Canadians has gone from being routine to concerning to outright terrifying. I have two business trips to the U.S. planned this year, and I’m not taking it as a given that I will be let in. For someone who grew up in a border town, who treated Detroit like my own city and crossed countless times with nary a thought (and no criminal record), it’s a strange feeling.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has published a “tearsheet” that is given to people who have their devices detained. It gives a list of reasons why visitors may be subject to an inspection, ranging from past crimes to random searches (so, pretty much any reason whatsoever).

It notes that, among other things, the device could be copied. It also includes a disclaimer that says, essentially, confidential business information obtained from device searches will not be unlawfully disclosed. So score one for intellectually property.

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada points out that these searches can happen to people coming into Canada as well.

“Canadian courts have generally recognized that people have reduced expectations of privacy at border points,” reads a statement on its website.

Part of me seriously wonders if writing a column such as this, critical of an American government policy, will come back to haunt me. In my lifetime, I never expected that concern to cross my mind — we’re talking travel between two free nations that have been good neighbours for centuries.

And yet I will have some trepidation the next time I hand over my passport.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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