[Hpn] seattletimes.com: Court rules on Canada's doorstep

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Court rules on Canada's doorstep
Full story: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004161057_portcourt03m.html

By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter

BLAINE -- Here's an immigration court you've probably never heard of.

Defendants at a rare border court here get a pass to temporarily enter the U.S., but then they must exit the country as soon as their case has been heard.

They are all citizens or legal residents of Canada who have been denied entry into the U.S. and show up at this legal outpost known casually as "port court" to plead their cases to a U.S. immigration judge.

On a recent day, they included a young doctor with an expired professional visa who was unable to return to a job at a New York cancer clinic, a woman whose fraud conviction eight years ago prevents her from visiting family in the States, and a Canadian who has lived in the U.S. most of her life but is at risk of losing her American green card because she lives in Canada, too.

"Clients don't come to port court in jumpsuits," said Len Saunders, a Blaine attorney who represents clients at port court.

"You won't see the kinds of compelling stories you see in Seattle -- parents of minor children born in the U.S. who are facing deportation. Many Canadians coming here are coming for business reasons or to take their kids to Disneyland."

Still, decisions made in port court are no less devastating -- the loss of U.S. residency or a ban on entering the U.S. for years can separate a person from family and friends stateside.

The U.S. extends pretty liberal passage to its neighbors from the north: Unlike citizens of Mexico, citizens of Canada don't need a visa to visit the U.S. and can remain here for up to six months.

Port court is a way to accommodate those Canadians who run afoul of U.S. immigration laws. One day a month, two Seattle-based immigration judges take turns presiding over this "courtroom" on the second floor of the nondescript immigration building at the Peace Arch border crossing here.

An average of 140 cases are handled here each year. The process moves quickly, the rules are somewhat loose and the courtroom looks more like a classroom, with long, gray tables and folding chairs.

Established 7 years ago

Like other immigration courts, port court falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. It is the only one along the Canadian border, established seven years ago after laws took effect requiring immigration authorities to detain aggravated felons attempting to enter the U.S.

Officials decided such a requirement would have sapped precious stateside detention space. The government operates two other port courts along the Mexican border in Texas.

Having the court on Canada's southern doorstep also alleviates the need for U.S. Customs and border officials to "parole" Canadians into the U.S. for an immigration hearing in Seattle and trust they will then leave the country if they're ordered removed.

Not everyone who is denied entry receives notice to appear before a port-court judge: Either they must request it or the border officer must be convinced it is the only way to resolve the case.

Even after someone receives such a notice, appearance is not mandatory; unlike immigrants inside the U.S. whose failure to appear could lead to their becoming fugitives, Canadian no-shows won't be hunted down by immigration officers.

Still, not showing up could result in their being "removed" from the country in absentia -- potentially banned for up to 10 years -- the outcome in more than half the cases handled by the court.

During the January proceedings, 18 defendants were scheduled for an initial appearance before Judge Kenneth Josephson. A dozen failed to show and were ordered removed in absentia.

Among those who did show, three attempted to navigate complicated U.S. immigration laws without the help of an attorney -- to the obvious annoyance, at times, of the judge.

Some Canadians first run into trouble when past felony convictions catch up with them as they try to cross the border. Those who have been convicted of a felony must obtain a waiver in order to enter the U.S.

Green-card cases

Many of the cases involve citizens or legal residents of Canada who have gained legal permanent residency (green cards) in the U.S. and therefore should be living in the U.S. They are stopped at the border when border officers have reason to believe they are still living in Canada and, in effect, have abandoned their green cards.

Lawyers and border officials believe many are drawn back by Canada's health-care system. Often they get caught trying to enter the U.S. using a Canadian passport when the border-crossing system finds they hold a green card. Others get caught when they show a green card but are driving a car with Canadian license plates.

That's how it happened in Jenine Tater's case.

Tater, 54, came to the U.S. as a baby, graduated from high school and college here and worked as a teacher in the U.S., where her parents still live.

She owns property in Vancouver, B.C.; in Point Roberts, Wash.; and in California; and she spends time in all three places. She said she began spending more time in Canada after President Bush won re-election in 2004. She came to the attention of border officials last October when she entered the country in a car with Canadian plates.

"If I'm cut off from the U.S., what will happen to my Social Security, my Medicare?" she said. "If I couldn't come in, I couldn't come to my parents' funeral or to visit my friends. I have far more ties to the U.S. than Canada."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com


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