Recent news reports that Canadians have been refused entry to the United States because of mental health disorders are focusing attention on how private medical information generated in Canada could end up in the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) database.
According to the Toronto Star, a woman with bipolar disorder was denied entry to the US last September by a CBP agent who referenced her mental health history on his computer at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. The woman said she was told by the agent that she was considered a flight risk and might try to stay in the US permanently. She was told that she needed more documentation to support her claim that she was not a flight risk.
After the woman was fingerprinted and photographed by the CBP, she returned home, obtained a letter from the leader of a women’s support group verifying that she attended group meetings regularly, and returned to Pearson the following day thinking the issue was settled. But again, she was denied entry by another agent who also referred to her mental health while looking at his computer screen. He asked if she had suicidal thoughts the previous spring and she said “yes,” that at the time she was depressed…“but they were just thoughts.” The Star report noted that her mental health history also included one suicide attempt 20 years ago. After reading a story in the Star about another woman denied entry to the US for mental health reasons a couple of weeks earlier, she decided to go public.
Related: Canada and US to Share Border Data
Our own investigation into these denied entry cases has shown that without considerable assistance from Canadian police records, the US Department of Homeland Security would have had no evidence for denying either of these women entry.
One point that needs to be established, however, is that US CBP agents have every right, under the Immigration and Nationality Act, to deny entry to individuals with a history of mental illness. Many countries have similar regulations. But the more critical question is: How do they get Canadian mental health records to pop up on their computer screens?
According to the Ontario Mental Health Police Records Check Coalition (PRCC), police in Canada routinely record information about incidents concerning individuals needing mental health services. That information is entered into local databases which are then transmitted to the national police information database at the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC). This database is administered by the RCMP and is shared with the US Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the US CBP.
The PRCC describes itself as “a coalition of stakeholders… working together to end the discriminatory practice of police who release non-criminal contact information about persons with mental illness.”
On December 11, 2013, the PRCC issued a press release stating that in addition to the recent cross-border denials, “There are more than a dozen cases… which have been recorded by the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office and likely many more that have gone unreported.
“While the investigation into how U.S. border officials received this information is still ongoing, previous similar incidents give an indication of how this may have occurred. When individuals come into contact with the police, whether or not the contact is related to a criminal matter, information about that contact is included in their police file.
“Consequently, if individuals request a police records check for the purpose of working or volunteering with a vulnerable population, information about contacts that did not result in conviction is often disclosed. Information in federal police databases is also widely accessible by law enforcement agencies—including United States border officials.
“Many individuals, family members, employers and other stakeholders are unaware of this practice and its harmful effects. Indeed, most discover they have a non-conviction record when they are rejected for an employment position or are turned away at the U.S. border.”
The PRCC has also prepared an Advocacy Guide to Cross-Border Mental Health Records that offers practical advice about how individuals can access their own police records to see if there are any mentions of mental health issues, and how they can prepare for a border crossing if there are such mentions in their records.