Border War: How American nationalism is having a big impact on B.C. entrepreneurs and professionals

Donald Trump's push to protect American jobs has left Canadians doing business stateside at the mercy of U.S. customs officials.

Credit: iStock

Donald Trump’s push to protect American jobs has left Canadians doing business stateside at the mercy of U.S. customs officials

Buy American and Hire American. That’s the title of the executive order President Donald Trump signed in April 2017. Now the directive is sowing confusion and turmoil for B.C. and other Canadian business travellers trying to enter the U.S.

Trump ordered U.S. customs, border and immigration agencies to turn a steely eye toward people entering the country for work or to do business. His purported aim is to keep more American jobs in American hands.

As a result, border officials are putting Canadian travellers under the microscope to ensure they’re following the letter of immigration laws. Visitors have long travelled south for meetings and other routine business. Since 2017, many are facing delays, being asked to provide extensive documentation and, in some cases, getting turned away.

Meanwhile, Canadian managers and specialized professionals working in the U.S. under what’s called an L-1 visa are running into new hurdles when applying for extensions. They can no longer file their applications at a port of entry. Instead, they must go to a service centre and pay premium processing fees if they want to avoid a months-long adjudication process.

Ieva Aubin, a Seattle-based employment and immigration lawyer and partner at Dorsey & Whitney, says B.C. businesses keep her phone ringing. “A lot of clients call us and say, ‘I’m just so baffled,'” she reveals. Facing far more scrutiny at the border, they’re also struggling to navigate the new guidelines so they can keep entering the U.S. reliably and efficiently.

Canadians can cross the U.S. border under different categories, depending on the nature of their visits. Many enter without a visa under what’s called a B-1 classification, which lets them engage in a limited range of business activities. They can attend meetings and conventions, get training, and negotiate sales, mergers or partnerships. However, B-1 visitors can’t perform any work that could be considered gainful employment. They can’t provide services or get paid.

These rules have long been in place, but now Customs and Border Protection officers are demanding that business travellers meet a higher burden of proof to show that they’re staying well within the rules. “You really have to be prepared now if you seek admission as a B-1 visitor,” Aubin advises.

She says visitors should bring any documents that show their visits will be temporary, such as hotel reservations and flight itineraries. An employer letter describing the nature of their trip could further their chances of admission.

Border agents can be inconsistent with how they apply the rules, which adds unpredictability for business travellers. CBC reporter Carolyn Dunn was refused entry in August for being what an agent described as imported labour, contrary to State Department policy for Canadian journalists on assignment.

Ryan McLeod, Vancouver-based vice-president of the News Photographers Association of Canada, says his group is troubled by Dunn’s case and concerned that journalists won’t be able to conduct their business in a timely fashion. “You have law enforcement agents who have the power to accept or deny people,” he notes. “And some of the people don’t understand the laws they are there to enforce.”

The CEO of a Vancouver-area engineering and design firm says the border crossing has caused his company so many headaches, he doesn’t want his or its name in the press when discussing them. The increased questioning has made him concerned that a border official might Google his name and find reason to add to his troubles.

“The last thing you want to do is to make a border guard mad,” explains the CEO, who says the U.S. market is critical to his business. 

He started his company in B.C. in 2007, opening a manufacturing facility in Washington state in 2016. He set up the U.S. plant to reduce delays and costs getting his products to American customers, after customs officials began holding and searching containers his company was moving. “Then they’d charge us $2,000 to search the container,” the CEO recalls. “It was happening on almost every container.”

Making products in the U.S. alleviated problems moving his goods and parts. But Trump’s 2017 edict made moving people more difficult. The CEO has 12 employees in Washington, all of them American citizens, whom he mostly manages remotely.

“We don’t go there nearly as much as we should, because of the challenges you have at the border,” he says. “Ideally we’d be there once a week, just helping them improve.”

When he or his team leaders visit, they carry a letter stating they’ve been counselled by their lawyer, and showing they understand they can’t do any management or other work while in the U.S. As B-1 visitors, they can only attend meetings or make inspections. Otherwise, they would need to apply for L-1 visas.

The CEO says his company uses a workaround, recruiting employees who are dual Canadian and U.S. citizens. “It did influence who we hired, for sure,” he discloses.

His advice for other travellers: “Anybody who crosses the border for business should have a U.S. immigration lawyer on speed-dial.

Border hassles or not, the U.S. remains our most important trading partner by far

48.9 percent 

U.S. share of B.C.’s export market in 2018, the largest
of any international destination

Mainland China came a distant second, at 14.5

$23 billion

Approximate value of B.C. goods shipped stateside last year, a 72-percent increase from $13 billion in 2010

Despite successful efforts to diversify B.C.’s economy and expand business with fast-growing Asian economies, U.S. trade has kept pace. Americans have bought roughly half of the province’s exports each year for more than a decade

4 million

Number of cars, carrying more than 8 million passengers, that entered the U.S. at Blaine, Washington, in 2018. This volume of traffic makes it the province’s busiest overland route south

Sources: BC Stats, U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics