Thursday, March 5, 2015

UPDATED: A Comforting Illusion Shattered

When it comes to massive intrusions by the state, the kind reflected in legislation like Bill C-51, people frequently rationalize their acceptance and passivity by this comforting fiction: "I don't have anything to hide; I'm not a terrorist, so why should I worry?"

A story of one family's unpleasant experience may prove instructional in challenging that complacence.
Firas Al-Rawi, an emergency room doctor at Toronto General Hospital, said he booked the Family Day holiday trip [to Disney World] in early December so his wife and children could join him at a professional conference in Orlando that week. The family had taken numerous trips to the United States by air and car without incident.

"My kids were so excited, and they were counting down the days for the trip,” said Al-Rawi, 48, an Iraqi who immigrated to Canada with his family in 2006 via Qatar, where he and his wife, Asmaa Ahmed, both worked as physicians. They and their children are all citizens who hold Canadian passports.
Alas, the trip was not to be:
The Al-Rawis became part of the 330 or more travellers a day who are refused entry to the United States under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which gives border officials the right to refuse admission of non-Americans — including Canadian citizens.
The apparent grounds for their inadmissibility appears to be that they are Muslims:
According to the National Council of Canadian Muslims, 14 per cent of the 182 human rights complaints it received between 2011 and 2013 involved travel restrictions to the U.S.
After being fingerprinted and photographed at the check-in counter, Al-Rawi said, they were asked to go for a secondary inspection.

As his family waited in a public area, Al-Rawi said he was questioned about the purpose of his visit, his employment and his family trips in 2014 to Qatar and Dubai.

“We didn’t really mind if it was a random check, given the typical screening with what’s happening with ISIS (the terrorist Islamic State group). We had nothing to hide,” he said. “But we were not prepared for the rest of it. We were stressed, not knowing what was going on.”

After a 10-minute interview, Al-Rawi said he and his family were fingerprinted and photographed again before uniformed officers came to inspect their suitcases.

During the inspection, the family said, their electronics — one iPhone, two MacBooks and three iPads — were confiscated, and they were ordered to provide passwords so officials could unlock the devices.
The reason given to the family for refusal was that U.S. officials did not think they would return to Canada, despite the fact that Al-Rawi spent more than five years working to earn an Ontario medical licence and restart his stalled practice in Canada.

Of course, entry to another country is not an automatic right, but the fact that the refusal amounts to a denial of natural justice is disconcerting:
United States Customs and Border Protection refused to comment on the Al-Rawi incident, but said travellers are responsible for proving their innocence.
Think about that - guilty unless proven innocent.

So what does any of this have to do with legislation that curtails one's civil liberties? It is, I suspect, a peek at what may be ahead for anyone who takes his or her citizenship responsibilities seriously and holds to them tenaciously, despite the kind of conformity that Bill C-51 will promote.

Of course, there will be other comforting illusions we can fall back on to discount the experiences of the Al-Rawi family: I'm a citizen (but isn't the entire Al-Rawi family as well?), I'm not a Muslim (Should that be a barrier?) I don't have a foreign-sounding name (Congrats! You won the birth lottery there).

But how long will it be before we have to come up with additional disclaimers, such as I have never joined an environmental protest, I have never stood up for any cause, I have never written a letter of criticism of my government, etc. etc.

Congratulations, Unknown Citizen, for living what will have been a wholly unexamined life.

UPDATE: if you think Canadian Border Services is more respectful of privacy, think again and click here.

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