Homeland Security Is Afraid of Mentally Ill Canadian Tourists

Ellen Richardson was stopped by the Department of Homeland Security from traveling to New York because she suffers from depression and tried to commit suicide in 2001. How the heck does that qualify as "border security"?

Dec 2 2013, 8:10pm

Photo via Flickr user arvind grover

On Thursday, the Toronto Star reported that a 50-year-old paraplegic woman may have been barred from visiting the United States due to her history of mental health issues. Apparently, last week Ellen Richardson attempted to fly from Toronto to New York City en route to a Caribbean cruise. But before she could get on the plane, a Department of Homeland Security agent said she couldn’t enter the country because she was hospitalized in 2012 for clinical depression and attempted to commit suicide in 2001. Richardson was understandably baffled that her private medical history could be used against her like that, particularly since she says she has been stable thanks to medication. Calling her psychiatrist to confirm her mental health wouldn’t be enough for DHS either, so she missed her vacation, even though she says she has taken several trips to and through the US since 2001 with no problem.

According to Richardson, the agent cited section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which details who may be barred from entering the US. These include aliens who have a “mental disorder and behavior associated with the disorder that may pose, or has posed, a threat to the property, safety, or welfare of the alien or others.”

The law seems clear, though a writer for NetworkWorld.com noted that suicide attempts are arguably not supposed to be held against would-be travelers. Apparently, mental illness itself is reason enough to stop someone at the border, which, given the number of people who have suffered from some kind of diagnosed condition in the past, is extremely troubling.

Richardson’s case isn’t unique. In 2011, an arthritic 64-year-old Toronto woman named Lois Kamenitz was barred from the US because of a past suicide attempt. Kamenitz was permitted to fly four days later after paying $375 for new tickets and $235 to get cleared by a State Department–endorsed doctor. At least a dozen other Canadians have had similar problems in the past. For most cases, the reason this private information was shared with Homeland Security was a police response to a suicide attempt. None of these individuals attempted to harm anyone but themselves, but police often respond to such calls along with paramedics, and if they do, they make some kind of report. And, thanks to Wikileaks, we know that US officials have access to any information in the national Canadian Police Information Centre.

Richardson’s case is a little different in that she says the police were not called during her suicide attempt. She has, however, written about dealing with depression and her status as a paraplegic. But does that mean DHS was googling her? Or do they have access to medical records that the public doesn’t (yet) know about? Regardless, the heavy-handed heartlessness of denying someone a vacation because they suffer from depression is shocking. Why does the US government have a policy that would lead to this outcome in place?

Legally, the US can bar anyone with the faintest hint of a skeleton in his or her closet from entry. But the morality of such rules is another story—who is the DHS to declare someone healthy or unhealthy and deny them the ability to cross borders based on that determination? Richardson wasn’t the first to get squeezed between the sides of bureaucratized medical care and border security hysteria, and unless the DHS makes some changes to its policies, she’s not going to be the last.

Now on the rest of this week’s bad cops:

- On Wednesday,three black teenagers were arrested in Rochester, New York, for disorderly conduct and blocking a public sidewalk, but they say they were simply waiting to be picked up by a school bus. Raliek Redd, Deaquon Carelock, and Wan'Tauhjs Weathers were part of a group of a dozen Edison High School students, all basketball players, who were going to a scrimmage set up by their coach. Nearby business owners had complained of loitering teens in the past, but these kids—and their coach, who appeared in time to see his players cuffed and taken away—say they tried to tell officers they were waiting for the bus to pick them up. The couch also alleges that the cop told them he’d arrest them all if he had room in his car. Police say they repeatedly told the kids to “disperse” and stop blocking the sidewalk, but their orders were ignored. The families paid a $200 bail to get their kids out in time for Thanksgiving, and a trial date has been set for December 11. Hopefully, by then charges will have been dropped due to the DA seeing how ridiculous (and potentially racist) this situation is.

- There’s an important legal line between what cops ask you to do and what they force you to do, and it’s not always clear in the moment what is voluntary and what isn’t. On November 19, drivers in Fort Worth, Texas, were pulled over at a roadblock, then asked to consent to a cheek swab, a blood sample, or a breathalyzer test—they were even offered money for doing so. As reported by NBC, drivers were pretty confused by this. Did they have to comply or not? There were apparently signs that said participation was voluntary, and drivers were told that when they were pulled over, but at least one woman quoted in the story felt pressured, and it’s easy to see why. This was all part of a $3.9 million, three-year study funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and farmed out to government contractors from a group called the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. The idea is to gather research on impaired driving from 30 different cities. But in Forth Worth at least, off-duty police were involved, and drivers were supposedly “forced” to pull over—that indicates that maybe the data collection practices for this study are a little more aggressive than they need to be. What would have happened if a driver refused to pull over?

- On November 20, a school resource officer in Cedar Creek, Texas, Tasered a 17-year-old boy with a stun gun, who then fell into a coma after falling on his face. The family of Noe Nino Rivera says he had surgery to relieve the bleeding in his brain and got placed in a medically-induced coma, and Rivera’s mother Maria Acosta has filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf. Police claim that Rivera was acting aggressive toward Bastrop County Deputy Randy McMillan, who was breaking up a fight between two students—but bystanders say the boy was simply trying to get the officer’s attention, and Acosta says her son actually defused the fight before the cop even showed up. She also claims school officials were slow in requesting for medical aid for her son. It’s not just the boy’s family who is horrified by the incident. Last week, more than 100 students protested against the less-than-lethal weapons’ presence in their school by walking out of class. McMillan, a six-year veteran of the force, has been reassigned to patrol work until an internal investigation wraps up.

- What’s with Florida’s aversion to feeding the homeless? Two summers ago, members of the Orlando chapter of Food Not Bombs was kicked out of a park—and three of them were actually arrested—for trying to give the homeless food in defiance of city law. Now, according to CBS affiliate WPEC-TV, members of Acts 2 Worship Center, a Christian aid group, were told by a Palm Beach County park ranger that they could be fined for trying to provide a Thanksgiving meal to the homeless in Fort Lake. The ranger, identified only as “Mark,” told the group their actions violated an unspecified county ordinance against larger groups dispensing food in the park. Ignoring threats that they would be ticketed, the dozen members of Act 2 Worship passed out meals. Ranger Mark refused to speak to WPEC, saying his higher-ups wouldn’t permit him to do so, and his bosses never showed up clarify the law. WPEC says they couldn’t find the specific ordinance referred to by Ranger Mark, but whatever it is, it should be changed.

- Our Good Cop of the Week is Scott Krissinger, who pulled a man from a burning car, a heroic act that was captured on his cruiser’s dashboard camera. On November 25, the Cape May, New Jersey, cop stopped behind a pickup that was in flames and with commendable speed, Krissinger retrieved 61-year-old Gerald Ferrill from the cab, placed him on the sidewalk, then ran back to make sure nobody else was in the vehicle. Krissinger humbly brushed off declarations of heroism, saying his quick actions just happened to be captured on camera. Regardless, it’s impressive. Good work, officer.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag

Previously: Can Cameras Prevent the Police from Harassing Poor People?

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