Several regional economic groups, including the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, are taking a stand against the U.S. government’s use of “expedited removal,” a border-security measure that can ban foreigners from entering the U.S. for at least five years—and in some cases, forever.
Bill Gorman, interim director of the Bellingham Chamber, said that while he believes federal agents should have appropriate tools to police the border, a lack of accountability and oversight in the expedited-removal process could hurt cross-border traffic between the U.S. and Canada and the economic benefits it brings into Whatcom County.
“It has long been an open border between the U.S. and Canada,” Gorman said. “We have a special relationship because of our long history with our border and our history as natural friends.”
Along with the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the Northwest Economic Council and the Pacific Corridor Enterprise Council, the Bellingham Chamber has joined a legal challenge on the expedited removal of John R.G. Smith, a Canadian cameraman for a national skydiving team, who says he was placed in expedited removal after trying to cross the border several years ago on the way to a training trip in Arizona.
U.S. border agents didn’t buy his story, and suspected he was trying to enter the country to work illegally. Federal law grants border agents authority to use expedited removal if they believe noncitizens are misrepresenting themselves or lacking proper documentation.
The Bellingham Chamber and its partner organizations filed an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief in the case, which is currently pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A decision from the court is expected within six months.
Expedited removal has garnered controversy in Canada for years, mainly due to the limitations individuals have to challenge their bans handed down by U.S. border agents.
Those placed in expedited removal cannot legally enter the U.S. for a minimum of five years, according to federal law, though in some instances they can be given lengthier bans, including lifetime ones.
While appeals to U.S. Customs and Border Protection are allowed, there are no immigration courts or other independent forums set up to hear challenges.
Canadian media outlets have highlighted several expedited removals that have confounded immigration attorneys and business leaders.
One recent high-profile case involved Chad Rook, a Vancouver, B.C. television actor who was barred from the U.S. for five years after trying to get through the Peace Arch Border Crossing in early 2013. Rook said he was on his way to California to scope out potential acting jobs, but wasn’t planning to stay in the U.S. indefinitely.
Border agents didn’t believe him.
In the amicus brief, the Bellingham Chamber and its partners argue that the expedited removal system, as currently managed, causes unnecessary harm to businesses in both countries.
U.S. officials are not commenting on the current legal challenge, as they do not talk about matters pending in court, said Michael Milne, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Milne did provide federal statistics on the annual number of expedited removals recorded at each of the four border crossings in Whatcom County.
According to the numbers, individuals placed into expedited removal make up a sliver of the total number traveling across the U.S.-Canada border every year. Of the 14.8 million people who crossed the border into Whatcom County in 2012, 47 were placed in expedited removal, according to the U.S. government.
Those 47 cases were the fewest annual expedited removals recorded since 2005, the last year stats were readily available from federal officials.
But Greg Boos, a Bellingham immigration lawyer who wrote the economic groups’ amicus brief and represents them in the 9th Circuit case, said he doesn’t think those numbers reflect the real impacts at the border.
Boos believes far more Canadians stay away from the border due to the threat, either real or perceived, of an expedited removal ban. He said expedited-removal decisions are better left to immigration courts rather than on-the-spot calls made by federal law-enforcement officers.
Boos said federal government resistance to address the issue could have harmful effects on future economic ties between the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s become apparent that our economy is dependent on cross-border trade and commerce, and that’s not just shoppers coming down to shop in Bellingham,” Boos said.
Gorman said he would like to see a better balance struck between security and ease of travel between the two countries.
The threat of expedited removal, along with the tightening of other border security measure over the past decade, has had a dampening effect on cross-border travel into Whatcom County, Gorman said.
“I think it just raises the bar on uncertainty, and makes it risky to come across,” he said.
Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.