Lights! Camera! Immigration action?

Lights! Camera! Immigration action?
Reality television is not generally a hot immigration topic. That’s all changed with the new show on the National Geographic Channel’s Border Security: Canada’s Front Line. It has the immigration bar abuzz.

The premise is simple. Set up shop at a border crossing. Focus cameras on people crossing into the country, film pieces of the inspection process, and watch the hilarity unfold.

Or as the show’s web site states: “Every day twenty thousand passengers request entry into Canada by way of Vancouver International Airport. . . . Welcome to Border Security – a revealing look at life on the front lines of national security. Follow Canadian border services officers as they intercept suspicious characters and contraband from around the world in an effort to keep us safe, and our health, workforce, and ecosystem secure.”

Sounds intriguing and like a great PR campaign to solicit new officers. Who doesn’t want to be involved in protecting not only the country’s collective health and workforce, but the ecosystem? People are going to be lining up around the block for these jobs.

It’s important to note these types of “border security” shows are not new, nor is Canada the first country caught in the camera’s eye. There have been overseas versions of this show, most notably in Australia. I don’t know how these shows were introduced abroad, but it seems most of the immigration bar was only exposed to the Canadian version based on a very public news event.

On March 13 a construction site in Vancouver was raided by border agents apparently looking for undocumented workers. The CBC published an article stating that in a written statement, CBSA indicated it was looking for one “previously deported person with a long criminal history. The detained men were found by chance.”

Regardless of the why, there are several fundamental issues to be explored with respect to this type of reality taping.

The first is the way the travelers are presented versus how the officers are presented. One robust example comes to mind. In one episode of the Australian version, a foreign national entering Australia was questioned extensively because, among other things, he had a list of local employers who provided services in his field of work on his person. The officer conducting the interview appeared convinced the man was entering the country with the intention of working.

The traveler had other issues which may have affected his overall credibility, but the way the segment was presented clearly showed a bias that the border officer was good and the traveller was bad.

In some cases, that may be the case, however, how many of us have come off a long series of flights and a full day of travel feeling tired and cranky? In those instances, it is possible that you would not present your best self at border inspection. It certainly doesn’t mean we lie, but that’s the assumption the show is making.

Tired travellers, liars, cheats, it’s all the same. The description on the web site states: “Passengers react in a variety of unpredictable ways – they lie, argue, play the victim, plead ignorance and even threaten legal action. But they are no match for the investigative tactics of the CBSA officers. After all, the law is on their side.”

So, right. Let’s get this straight. Anyone who argues or invokes their legal rights has met their match in a Captain-Canuck-like immigration official. And we are forgetting that much of the practice of law, the very law that is “on the side” of the CBSA officer, is a matter of interpretation. As an immigration lawyer, I see this all the time. But the show doesn’t appear to recognize the law is somewhat flexible and interpretations do vary. Flexibility has to be part of this process.

And this is the point some immigration lawyers have raised: By giving the public a look at the sometimes ridiculous aspect and over-the-topness of the process, people might demand their tax dollars be better spent.

I disagree. In a down economy with people out of work and all of the attendant issues, it seems more dangerous than ever to have this type of “men in white hats/men in black hats” show. It feeds that xenophobic, anti-immigrant attitude you read in the comments section of any online news article about immigration.

The raid that occurred, and was caught on video, affected real people who have real lives in Canada. Yes, some of them were illegal and in catching those individuals who are admittedly breaking the law, I suppose some type of justice is being served. But to televise it and possibly expose the identity and location of refugee applicants seems a step too far.

Lastly, much has been said about the individuals on the show, and presumably caught in this raid, who must sign a consent to appear on the show. The CBSA statement on the matter read: “An individual’s case will not be negatively or positively impacted by their decision to participate or not.” This raises all manner of issues concerning perceived coercion and whether or not a person feels they have the right to refuse to sign when put in such an extremely high-tense situation.

In the end, CBSA and law enforcement in general are doing their jobs, which is a good thing. But televising it to offer “viewers a front row seat to high stakes, bizarre reveals, and comical conflicts that are part of everyday life for border security officers” seems to be taking it too far. A documentary about CBSA and their comical conflicts could be achieved without exposing individual travellers, even illegal workers, to such public exposure and ridicule. Canada cannot allow itself to become the national equivalent of a Kardashian family member.

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