Written by Liz Fleming
James Sward, a Vancouver elevator mechanic, was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth when he answered a U.S. border patrol officer’s questions on a recent trip to Washington State.
Yes, Sward admitted, when he was a teenager he had been arrested for carrying pot and yes, he had smoked it too. No, Swart asserted honestly, he was never charged with possession and had no criminal record of any kind. That spotless record simply wasn’t good enough for the border patrol officer who banned Sward from entering the United States for life.
It’s a strange story, but true. When questioned by Canadian news agencies, U.S. border officials confirmed that anyone who admits to past drug use can be denied entry. The U.S., in fact, is tough on would-be visitors who’ve been convicted of any “crimes of moral turpitude” such as arson, blackmail, burglary, forgery, larceny, fraud, assault, child abandonment, embezzlement and extortion etc. If you have black marks of that sort on your record, you’d better plan to do your vacationing somewhere other than the U.S.
It’s important to note that while you might have been granted a Canadian Pardon, that means only that you’re able to be bonded or receive a security clearance for certain jobs in Canada. It has no bearing on your ability to cross the border.
If you’ve been convicted of an indictable offense in Canada (drug trafficking, murder, theft over $5000 etc.) your only option is to apply for an immigration waiver, valid for one to five years, that you’ll have to show each time you enter the United States. The three to six month-long application process can only take place five years after your conviction, costs $600 and may or may not be successful – it’s at the discretion of the U.S. government. If your conviction was for a drug-related crime, you’re very unlikely to receive the waiver.
Beyond our borders
Although the U.S. is by far the most popular destination for Canadian tourists, we’re also fond of sun and fun spots such as Cuba, Jamaica and Mexico. To make your travels as smooth as possible, we took a look to see what immigration rules those destinations would like us to keep in mind.
If your past is a bit sketchy, Mexico isn’t your best holiday bet. Mexico’s immigration laws state that tourists with criminal records in Canada may be refused entry at the border and put on the first available return flight.
All Canadians entering Mexico either by plane or land must have a tourist card filled out and stamped at their first port of entry. Ordinarily, you’ll be granted 180-day tourist visa, but that’s not always the case. The length of your stay is at the discretion of the immigration officer who admits you. If you’re given a shorter stay and need more time, you can pay a fee to have it extended at an immigration office. According to Mexican law, you can be asked to show that card at any point, so keep it handy and you’ll have to produce it to exit. If you lose it, you’ll find yourself stuck in a long line to organize a replacement and may well miss your flight home.
Planning to be a big spender, señor? Say so. You won’t be taxed on the money, but importing more than $10,000.00 U.S. in cash, money orders, cheques or any combination of the three without declaring it is an infraction that could result in detention at the border.
Cuba is a military state and they take immigration rules seriously. They’re particularly keen on tourist health-care coverage – they won’t care for you for free should anything happen while you’re vacationing there. Before you’re eligible to enter Cuba, you’ll be required to show proof of health insurance to handle anything your provincial coverage won’t. If you arrive without that proof, you could be asked to buy Cuban health insurance at the airport – and it won’t be a bargain.
Cuba is also particular about family travel. If you’ll be vacationing with your children – or anyone else’s children – you might be required to show evidence of parental/custodial and/or access rights. If the children aren’t yours, you’ll need a document proving that you have the consent of the parents, the legal guardian and/or the court.
As travellers, we’re used to thinking in terms of what we can bring back to Canada with us from the countries we visit, but if you’re travelling to Jamaica, you need to give serious thought to what you have in your bag on the way in. Not only is Jamaica deeply concerned about drug running and smuggling but they also restrict the amount of alcohol (two liters) and cigarettes (two cartons) each tourist can import. You’re allowed some duty-free goods, but not an “inordinate” amount. Given that the “allowable amount” will be determined by local Customs officials, you’d be smart to limit your duty-free goods to avoid being hit with a big import tax.
One of Jamaica’s more surprising immigration rules involves same-sex marriages. Though legal in Canada, same sex marriages aren’t recognized by some countries and regions, including Jamaica. In fact, if you try to enter Jamaica as a same-sex married couple you may be refused by local officials. For more information, contact the High Commission for Jamaica.