U.S. citizens and politicians question U.S. Customs

 

 

"For years now, many have feared that lax border security would allow terrorists to easily enter the United States from Canada. However, U.S. Customs officials at Pearson International Airport in Canada were able to stop the latest pair of “domestic terrorists.” Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell attempted to enter the United States Thursday as a married couple... "
Concerned Women For America,
Sept 24, 2003

 

 

“It appears to me, having practiced customs law since 1987, that this is a case of discrimination under this regulation.”
Judith A. Lee, a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, "U.S. Customs Misfires", Gay City News, Sept. 26, 2003

 

 

"...a legally married, same-sex couple could potentially be penalized if they enter as two individuals. The first $1,600 of goods is exempt from duty for a married couple while only the first $800 is exempt for individuals."
"U.S. Customs Misfires", Gay City News, Sept. 26, 2003

 

 

 

"Forcing people to deny their own important values, when this has no legal bearing in the U.S., serves no public purpose, and whatever its motivation, becomes a form of meanness--inflicting emotional pain on people for no reason other than to express our official disapproval of them."
Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas),
Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.),
Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

 

 

"As a U.S. citizen I am ashamed that my tax-supported officials would treat foreign visitors to this country in this way. I invite everyone who agrees to join me in letting our elected, appointed, and hired public officials know how we feel about it."
Roger Swayze, Oct. 2, 2003

 

 

Join us as we legalize same-sex marriage.  Subscribe to our free newsletter

 

 

Link to  Elliott & Kim - our heroes fighting for our right to marriage in Ontario

 

 

 

 

Same-sex couple denied the right to enter the United States as a  family

 

 

"Each arriving traveler or responsible family member must provide the following information (only ONE written declaration per family is required)"
-U.S. Customs Form

 

 

 

"Is it a problem filling out a second form?"

 

 

“It is unfortunate that at a time when our homeland security resources are scarce, an employee of the U.S. Customs Service is spending valuable time to delay the entry of legally married visitors from Canada.”
Elizabeth G. Stanley, spokesperson for Congressmember Nita M. Lowey, Gay City News, Sept. 26, 2003

 

 

 

"You have refused to go to the back of the bus and in doing so others will soon sit where they wish."
Lloyd Thornhill and Bob Peacock, Sept. 19, 2003

 

 

 

"If our treatment of citizens of other nations is so horrible in such a low-stakes, simple, routine event as a border crossing, is it any wonder that most of the world's population has such contempt and hatred for our country? As unendurable an experience as crossing the border is for our Canadian friends at times, I cannot imagine how much more insufferable it must be for those from countries with which we do not share such a relationship."
Erik Derr, Sept. 19, 2003, from emails sent to us

 

 

 

Link to learn more about how you can help pay the legal expenses for any of the marriage cases underway in Canada.  Get engaged !

 

 

 

"We were so shocked when we read about your being treated so abominably at the border! And you were going to a civil rights meeting too! What the hell are they thinking? We are so proud of you. Glad you did not give in."
Diana Denny & Robin Roberts

 

 

 

Link to  Elliott & Kim - our heroes fighting for our right to marriage in Ontario

 

 

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Legal Canada - Banned in the U.S.A.

October 3, 2003

U.S. citizens & politicians question Customs

"U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has asked the Customs Bureau to explain its actions. “Chuck’s reading of the regulations finds that Mr. Bourassa and Mr. Varnell should have been allowed to use a single form,” a Schumer spokesperson wrote in a September 23 statement. “He has asked Customs to explain why they weren’t allowed to do this and Customs has not given him any answer.”"
U.S. Customs Misfires, Gay City News, Sept. 26, 2003


Two weeks after we were refused entry into the U.S. as a family, American citizens and politicians continue to address concerns to U.S. customs. who have not yet responded.

"It appears to me, having practiced customs law since 1987, that this is a case of discrimination under this regulations," Judith A. Lee, a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of GIbson, Dunn and Crutcher, to Gay City News last week. "They are a family under the regulation. The regulation does not require that you have a marriage recognized in the United States in order to take advantage of this provision."

Lee has impressive credentials. She is the vice chair of the American Bar Association Committee on Export Controls and Embargoes, and she is a past chair of the American Bar Association Customs Law Committee.

Politicians in the U.S. have begun to voice concerns and questions. Last week, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, in the same Gay City News report, said he has asked for an explanation from the U.S. Customs Bureau. More recently, on October 1, four senior Democrats have done the same in a letter to the Commissioner of the Customs Service:

"We do not understand why it should be American policy to insist that people seeking to enter our country as tourists from another country repudiate their own country's rules and engage in what are to them wholly inaccurate self-descriptions and in a way that they understandably found to be degrading.... Forcing people to deny their own important values, when this has no legal bearing in the U.S., serves no public purpose, and whatever its motivation, becomes a form of meanness--inflicting emotional pain on people for no reason other than to express our official disapproval of them."

The letter was signed by representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims; Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Infrastructure and Border Security; Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution; and Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the senior Democrat on the Financial Services Committee.

U.S. citizens have been voicing similar concerns to us and to U.S. customs. Inspired by the senior Democrats, Roger Swayze, from Seattle, wrote the following in a U.S. marriage email list (reposted with permission from the author):

I read about the same-sex Canadian couple refused entry into the U.S. because they checked "married" on their U.S. Immigration form when they tried to enter the U.S. to attend a conference. I was delighted to learn that four ranking Democratic members of Congress who are on committees overseeing immigration matters wrote to the Commissioner of U.S. Customs urging him to reverse this practice. When I read the letter I thought "I should do the same thing!" So - I did!

Attached [below] is a sample letter, a modified form of the letter signed by the four members of Congress, which you can use or modify as you see fit to send to the Commissioner. Why not let him know that a LOT of us feel exactly the same way. And while you are at it why not let your own congressperson know how you feel. We might as well use this unfortunate incident to make our views known.

It is a terrible thing that this happened to this couple. As a U.S. citizen I am ashamed that my tax-supported officials would treat foreign visitors to this country in this way. I invite everyone who agrees to join me in letting our elected, appointed, and hired public officials know how we feel about it.

Roger Swayze
Seattle, WA

Sample Letter

Your Name
Your Address
City, State, Zip

The Honorable Robert C. Bonner
Commissioner U.S. Customs Service
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20229

Dear Mr. Commissioner,

I am very disappointed to read that U.S. Customs officials refused to allow a same-sex Canadian couple to enter the U.S. when they insisted on declaring their Canadian marital status on their entry card. I am aware that a section of American law prohibits the U.S. government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Regardless of the merits of that law, I do not believe the law compels the result that happened in that case. Had the two men been allowed to enter the U.S. with their Canadian marital status listed on the form, they would have been entitled to none of the unique legal rights or privileges in the U.S. that a married couple would receive. Nothing legal in the sense that any statute governs would have been affected had their declaration that they were a Canadian married couple been honored. I would like to see this law changed, but unfortunately at this time it is the existing law.

I do not understand why it should be American policy to insist that people seeking to enter our country as tourists from another country repudiate their own country's rules and engage in what are to them wholly inaccurate self descriptions and in a way that they understandably find to be degrading. Forcing people to deny their own important values when this has no legal bearing in the U.S. serves no valid public purpose. Whatever its motivation, treating people in this way becomes a form of meanness - inflicting emotional pain on people for no reason other than to express our official disapproval of their marital status. I urge you to reverse this policy.

Sincerely,

We greatly appreciate the supportive letters we've received, and we are encouraged by the leadership shown by U.S. politicians on guard against discrimination. We remain hopeful that one day soon we will be able to approach U.S. Customs without having to deny who we are and what we value.


September 18 , 2003 (Updated Sept. 26)

Banned In The U.S.A.
Has the border of tolerance been reached?

"For years now, many have feared that lax border security would allow terrorists to easily enter the United States from Canada. However, U.S. Customs officials at Pearson International Airport in Canada were able to stop the latest pair of “domestic terrorists.” Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell attempted to enter the United States Thursday as a married couple... This latest story is only a small part of the larger effort by many radical activist groups to force their harmful homosexual marriage agenda on the United States. Numerous medical studies link homosexual sex to severely increased risks of AIDS, hepatitis A, B, and C, syphilis, gonorrhea, substance abuse, domestic violence and emotional, psychological and social consequences."
Concerned Women For America, "Homosexuals Pose New Threat to U.S. Border Security", Sept. 24, 2003


It was the last stop on our tour of engagements for this year and our last step before getting on the plane, when the United States Customs Service decided to wade in on the issue of same-sex couples and family status. Our destination was Atlanta, Georgia and the Gill Foundation's OutGiving conference. The topic was to be same-sex couples and family status.

Our check-in at the U.S. Air desk went smoothly and we proceeded with our boarding passes and customs paper-work towards U.S.Customs and Immigration. The U.S. Customs form is clearly marked at the top:

"Each arriving traveler or responsible family member must provide the following information (only ONE written declaration per family is required)".

The emphasis is theirs, not ours.

In compliance with the forms instructions, we filled out one Customs Declaration form for our family, just as we have done on previous visits to the United States. As recently as 3 weeks ago we were in Philadelphia and while going through immigration, there have been some questioning looks as the realization sets in that we are not brothers, but we have always been stamped through and allowed to go on our way - not this morning however.

We passed through immigration readily enough, the immigration officer asking the usual questions about our intended destination in the United States, how long we intended to stay, etc. After ascertaining that we were married, and with no fuss, the immigration agent stamped us through.

We proceeded the 10-foot walk to hand in our form to the United States customs official, who in most cases simply glances at the form and allows passengers to proceed to airline security. This particular customs agent, however, looked at only one customs form for two men and decided to explore the nature of our family relationship. He asked what my name was and I responded, "Joe Varnell". Hearing the different last name from the one on the Customs form, he asked what the nature of our relationship was. We explained that we were married and the agent said that he was going to have me go back and fill out a separate form. When we pointed out the instructions on the form indicated one per family, his response was - "The United States does not recognize same-sex marriages".

We were at the cross-roads.

The paperwork would have taken about a minute for us to accomplish. Some quick personal facts, a series of check boxes, my signature and I would be done and on my way to Georgia. But why were we going there? Wasn't this the very issue that we were going to speak about - our status as a family. Could we really claim to go and speak about how important it is for the public to recognize LGBTQ couples as families after sneaking across the border as single people?

We said that we would not fill out a second form and when the customs agent insisted, we went back to immigration. This time Immigration supervisor (Mr. C. Norton) supported the position of the customs agent and the supervisor asked, 'Is it a problem filling out a second form?'

I thought about the event we were about to miss. External link to Gay City News coverageIt was being opened by Coretta Scott King whose husband had rallied the nation in support of an African-American seamstress who refused to move to the back of the bus. It wasn't the paperwork, it was what the paperwork represented. We informed the Immigration Supervisor that we would not be entering the country and with disappointment, and frustration , we made our way home.

The United States is a sovereign country. They have the right to refuse entry to anyone they want and the issue of the United States recognizing the marriages of U.S. citizens who come to Canada to get married is one that needs internal debate. But this is a case of the United States in essence telling the Canadian government which Canadians qualify as families and which Canadians do not.. Maybe the form should be altered to read, 'One form per family as defined in American law." Then we, as Canadians, can decide whether to venture into the 'land of free' or not, hiding our relationships and ourselves in order not to be bothered. I guess it just depends on how much emotional baggage we are willing to tote along with our carry on.

Update

We were able to join the conference and speak to the attendees by telephone on the morning of Sept. 20th. We greatly appreciated the understanding and warmth that came from the audience, down through the line to us. Special thanks to the Gill Foundation for their support. In particular, our gratitude to Joanne Kron, for graciously dealing with our early morning call from the airport, Andrew Hildner for his coordination, and Vance Lancaster for the invitation. We look forward to the day when we can work together in person.

As always, our unending gratitude to Douglas Elliott and the team at McGowan Elliott & Kim.


Read a selection of comments from our mail.Link to our media coverage of related issues.