Hassles at Immigration

Meetings & Conventions: The Law and the Planner January 1998 Current Issue
January 1998 Jonathan HowePLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner


Hassles at Immigration

Why are business travelers being turned away at the U.S. Canadian border?

A few years ago, I received a frantic call from a client whose speaker was stopped at Canadian Immigration. When asked why he was entering Canada, the speaker honestly said he was there on business -- in fact, he was scheduled to speak in six cities. He was promptly put on the next plane back to the Unites States because he did not have a work permit. Shortly thereafter, a client who was bringing a Canadian speaker south faced the same problem at the hands of U.S. Immigration.

What's going on here? Aren't we friendly neighbors? Yes, with a few caveats. On paper, international developments look good -- NAFTA, Open Skies, Shared Border Access... But try to get exhibition materials into or out of another country, and that's another matter altogether.

The reality is, even longtime allies grapple with the conflict of promoting business interests while also protecting the domestic labor market. It's a challenge all countries face. And, it's a dilemma meeting professionals need to be prepared for when events -- or participants -- cross national borders.

Not too long ago I attended a meeting in Canada. While there, I noticed an article in TheGlobe and Mail, one of Canada's nationwide newspapers, headlined "Executives Hassled at Border." It went on to describe numerous situations in which Canadian and American business travelers were hassled, delayed and denied border crossing for less-than-nefarious activities -- such as attending a banquet. One top business recruiter was sent back by customs officials in Canada when he was on his way to recruit an individual for a possible opportunity in the United States. Similarly, a recent article in The New York Times noted worldwide difficulties for those entering and leaving the States. People are being detained, denied entry and sent home.

Clearly, immigration and customs officials are getting tougher, for good reasons ranging from drug smuggling to exceeding duty free limits on goods purchased. But why, in this day and age, are we finding the opportunity to go from Canada to the United States and vice versa much more difficult for legitimate business reasons? I don't know for sure, but I do have some suspicions.

Already in place in the United States is the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This recently passed law, which was a response by Congress to pleas concerning so-called illegal aliens, ostensibly has created a border crisis between the United States, Mexico and Canada. Some believe the law will require Mexicans and Canadians to obtain a visa to enter the United States. Legislation is being proposed to make it clear that such would not be the case for Canadians entering the United States. Meanwhile, the net result of the law seems to be a degree of retaliation by Canada.

The only government agencies before which you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent are the Internal Revenue Service and Immigration and Customs. Under Section 110 of the Act, an automated entry/exit control system is to be in place recording the departure of every "alien" against the date of arrival. Those who exceed the period of authorized stay may be prohibited from re-entry into the United States for five years. If they are found to be in violation of any other requirement, they may be banned as well for five years. There is no court trial or appeal procedure. The determination is made by immigration officials at the port of entry. Technically, even database errors could foul up meeting participants from Canada or elsewhere.

The issues for the meeting professional are complex. In short, you must have up-to-date information about entry into an international destination and/or requirements of attendees coming to your event from other countries. For specific concerns regarding our northern neighbor, contact U.S. and Canadian Immigration officials.

Meeting professionals can head off problems by providing exit and entry information to attendees -- and particularly professionals who will have compensated roles at any event.

A rule to remember: Deceit is never the answer. Participants should be informed that, regardless of any hardship it may create, they must tell the absolute truth at border crossings. After all, the lie that gets them across the border for one meeting might also prohibit them from entering the country for years to come. *

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law.

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