Being an immigration lawyer, I often work with immigration and customs officers around the world, as well as airport personnel and general frontline folk. Practising both U.S. and Canadian immigration law means I spend a lot of time dealing with clients who find themselves stuck at a border, who have no chance of crossing the border, or who colossally screwed up their most recent attempt at a border crossing.
In most instances, when looking for someone to blame, the client looks at the officer who refused the entry, regardless of what the client may have said or done to warrant the same. And then there is finger wagging. And then the client will often carry on for a bit about the injustice of it all.
And then I figure out what to do next.
Despite this seemingly everyday occurrence of dealing with clients travelling internationally, few of us have to deal with an issue of the magnitude faced by Suaad Hagi Mohamud.
In this matter, the blame game seems all too easy. The person at the airport, the Canadian consular officers, the Kenyan police . . . it seems every person in authority that touched this case failed Mohamud and caused her undue hardship by not allowing her to return to her country of citizenship.
She was trapped overseas, locked in jail, and treated as if her rights as a Canadian citizen didn’t exist based on the whims of a few “officials.” I can’t imagine the horror she went through, but based on news accounts, it does seem undeserved and unwarranted.
But wait. Let’s say this had turned out differently.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that Mohamud was in fact not who she said she was, that she had stolen the passport and documents, and was refused boarding her flight to Canada.
Let’s say she was ultimately arrested and it came to light that she was an al-Qaida operative prepared to blow up the flight, or the airport, or cause general mayhem in Canada.
Let’s say she was the terror suspect we all fear. Then those same persons in authority, the officials who followed their instincts and did their jobs, become heroes. (Think Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon movies. No one likes a cop who beats up people, unless those people are really bad and deserve it, right?)
Or, what if those officers do not refuse her entry despite their perception that she is not who she claims to be. The officials have doubts, sure, they aren’t convinced she’s the same person on the passport, she looks different, the picture is grainy, etc. But she’s allowed on the plane and then promptly blows it up.
Those same officials are now incompetent, inept, failing their training, failing us all. In my experience, no one wants to be that official, either.
How can you win?
Maybe it’s the Libra in me, but I think this is a no-win situation regardless of how the officials acted.
We’ve seen it happen time and again, Maher Arar, the Khadrs, the list is seemingly endless of people who have been swept up in terror raids and forced to fight a battle with their own government for help. Right or wrong, we expect that our government will protect us and will protect the rights of people who deserve protecting in the process.
But how do we justify or even recognize in uncertain times who is “deserving?” And how do we ensure this is carried out while still maintaining every person’s dignity and autonomy?
It is by the sheer grace of something bigger than ourselves that this is not an even more recurring issue in North America. Bombs don’t often go off mid-flight, mosques, temples, and churches are not blow up by suicide bombers, and if international terrorists are crossing international borders, we don’t often hear about it.
Every single day, we put our trust, our lives, in the hands of these same border officials who encountered Mohamud. We demand they protect us, but we must also demand that that protection is carried out in a reasonable manner.
It seems pretty clear Mohamud is just a regular Canadian citizen who travelled abroad and was heading home at the end of her journey. What really happened to her, the process, the thinking, the justifications, may never be more than a series of hypothetical questions not adequately answered.
Instead we are left with looking at the age-old problem of “how do we fix it?” How do we protect ourselves without giving up our belief in human dignity and the rights of our citizens?
Border security is an ongoing problem that has no simple answers. Is it fiscally and geographically practical to implement newer technologies such as fingerprint and retinal scans at international crossing points?
I don’t know, but I believe until there is a better system, the Canadian government should show more respect to its citizens when they are in a situation like Mohamud’s. Surely this is not such an everyday occurrence that spending some extra time and resources on ensuring the government is not stepping on the rights of one of its own is out of the question.
Regardless of where you sit on this issue, I think we can all agree that it is imperative in a free society that we treat our own citizens with more respect. I would expect the same treatment, and I imagine you would too.
Jennifer Nees is a senior associate at business immigration boutique firm, the Bomza Law Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org