A new US immigration policy that discriminates against some Canadian citizens born in the Middle East and South Asia has been widely condemned in Canada. The controversial policy came into effect on September 11. It gives US border-guards and customs officials the authority to photograph and fingerprint Canadian citizens born in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan upon arrival in the US. This discriminatory policy, which essentially criminalizes people born in these countries, is imposed under the excuse of American “security”.
No evidence is offered that the latest US assault on Canadian sovereignty, which effectively creates two classes of citizens, will actually achieve anything. Initially the Canadian government was silent, but then under public pressure, including from the ranks of the ruling Liberal Party, some of whose MPs were born in one of the target countries, started to speak out against the US’s plans. One MP, Sarkis Assadourian, who was born in Syria, said that he would not go to the US in protest because of this discriminatory policy.
Facing a growing chorus of condemnation from the media, the public and its own rank and file (Canada is a multicultural society and any serious distinctions based on race, colour, ethnic origin or country of birth would create serious problems), the ruling Liberal Party was forced to take a stand. Foreign affairs minister Bill Graham publicly challenged the policy and said that the matter would be taken up with the US authorities. In the meantime, the foreign ministry issued an unusual advisory to Canadian citizens born in these countries to think carefully before visiting the US. The advisory was posted on its website as well. “Quite obviously, we do not agree with the American approach. We believe that this measure is discriminatory for some Canadians,” said foreign ministry spokesman Reynald Doiron.
The Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC), an organization representing Muslims in Canada, said in a press statement on October 31: “Ottawa has to do something about tough new US border restrictions that target Canadians born in the Middle East and South Asia.” Dr Mohamed Ibrahim Elmasry, president of the CIC, said that Ottawa must remind Washington that there are no second-class Canadian citizens. “We have only one type of citizenship. We treat all of our citizens equally. There’s no difference between those who are born in Canada and those who are born abroad,” he said.
Faced with the growing controversy and charges of racism, the US government changed its tune slightly. Canadian foreign minister Graham told parliament on October 31 that he had been given assurances by US ambassador Paul Cellucci that Canadian passport-holders born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan or Syria would no longer be photographed or fingerprinted upon arrival in the US. But a spokesperson for Graham’s department said it remained to be seen just how the policy reversal worked in real life. “It’s not going to change overnight,” said Reynald Doiron. “It may take many days, if not a few weeks, if not a few months.”
Why it should take such a long time was not clear. The policy directive needs to be issued from the top to ensure that US customs officials and border-guards do not implement the new policy, which came into effect only a few weeks earlier. The real problem is the unruly behaviour of US customs and immigration officials and border-guards; even before this directive was issued, they acted arrogantly and rudely toward visitors born in certain countries. There have been numerous cases of Muslims not only being interrogated for hours, but also in some cases even threatened and assaulted. Part of the problem stems from the Canadian government’s own weak response. The assault on the rights of some of its citizens is only the latest in a series of moves that raises disturbing questions about whether the Canadian government is itself serious about protecting its citizens.
Take the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was detained by US officials as he changed planes in New York while returning from a vacation in Tunisia. An engineer by profession, Arar was interrogated for about a week in New York and then deported to Syria, where he was born, on October 8. The reason for his arrest and why he was not deported to Ottawa, where he has lived for decades, are not clear. For two weeks Arar simply disappeared, until his wife raised the alarm because she had not heard from him. She was still in Tunisia and was afraid to return home by the same route (New York) in case she too was arrested. Only when Arar’s case came to public attention, causing outrage, did the Canadian government take some interest, but the matter seems to have been dropped since.
This is not surprising in view of the position adopted by the Canadian prime minister, Jean Chretien. He brushed aside concerns when asked what he thought of new US visa restrictions imposed on all landed immigrants to Canada (permanent residents) born in the Commonwealth countries except those from Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. Chretien said quite bluntly in parliament on November 6 that his government had gone to bat for Canadian citizens, but would not do anything for landed immigrants. At least one opposition party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which has consistently defended the rights of all residents of Canada, condemned the prime minister’s statement.
The US, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with its policy of discrimination against Canadian citizens born in certain countries. Speaking in Niagara Falls (on the American side) on November 7, US attorney general John Ashcroft confirmed that the national security registration system (NSRS) that came into effect on September 11 of this year will apply to citizens of all countries. He said that since its implementation more than 14,000 persons had been fingerprinted from 112 countries, of whom 179 were detained. He insisted that no country was exempt from this rule. It is clear that the US wants to fingerprint every human being in the world, so that it can monitor their movements everywhere. Big Brother really exists.
America’s latest assault on the rights of other people has not been without its funny side. One Canadian citizen of Iranian origin, when asked by a US customs official where he was born, replied Tehran. “Where is that?” asked the American official without any hint of embarrassment about his own ignorance. In fact, this is essentially the problem with the US: there is too much ignorance about the rest of the world.
Americans would be a lot safer if they went after their gun-lobby with the zeal they are showing against citizens of other countries. Every year, an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people are killed in the US by gunshot wounds. This has been a consistent pattern in the US for several decades. Since the end of the Vietnam war (1973), in which 58,000 Americans died, the number of Americans killed is more than 750,000. Unfortunately, this is one statistic that no American official wishes to confront with honesty.