It was around 11 a.m. on Aug. 4 when Noni Belland and her daughter Lauren arrived at the border crossing in Peigan, Mont. Belland pulled her sandstone-colored Hyundai Santa Fe up to the U.S. border station and began going through the motions. She was returning from a visit to see her sick father in Calgary. The Belland family had made this trip many times before, so Noni figured it would be a quick and easy crossing back into the U.S.
Noni, or Nora-Jane Belland, is a Canadian citizen who still has plenty of family ties north of the border. But her deepest roots are in Hamilton, where 15-year-old Lauren is a star high school soccer player and ballerina. Belland owns a home in Hamilton and works as an ophthalmological assistant at Bitterroot Valley Eye Associates. She’s worked in Hamilton since 1988, when she received a Social Security number and work visa. Over the years, the rules governing resident aliens like Belland have changed. The mother of three knew she needed to update her status, and she had paper work in-hand when she arrived at the border on Aug. 4.
Belland thought if there was any problem with her work status, she could clear it up right there at the border. And as it turns out, there was a problem.
After presenting her paperwork, Belland was led into the immigration office, where an officer asked if she was working in the U.S. Belland said yes, and this is what happened next: “They took me into an interview room and put my fingers on a scanner and photographed my face. I asked, ‘Am I being arrested?’ And the officer said, ‘No, but you won’t be able to go back to the U.S. for three years.’ At this point, I was getting upset.”
Belland was then asked to sign a sworn statement confirming that she had been working in Hamilton without a proper visa. When she first moved to the Bitterroot Valley, she was allowed to work legally. But following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, her work status changed and Belland never sorted out the paperwork that might have reinstated her work visa.
“And I was never notified that there was any change,” says Belland, who is separated from but still married to her Canadian husband. Her husband is classified as a NAFTA professional and is allowed to work in the U.S. Belland is considered a dependent under the NAFTA rules and thereby forbidden from working.
For nearly 10 years, Belland’s status never came up while she made frequent crossings to and from Canada. But in the post-9/11 era of heightened alert, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection are enforcing each rule to the letter. Both bureaus are part of the new Department of Homeland Security, which was created in 2002 and now oversees increasing scrutiny of U.S. borders. With the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement alone, 14,000 employees are now unified in a manner that, according to a January press release, “will enhance information sharing with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and develop stronger relationships with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
In other words, the federal government is cracking down, streamlining operations with the goal of making the borders far less porous.
When Belland was allowed to leave the U.S. border station at Peigan, she turned around and tried to cross back into Canada. But suddenly, in the eyes of the Canadian government, she was a national returning from years abroad. Before she could re-enter her home country, she had to pay tax on her vehicle, which amounted to $1,500.
“So Lauren and I are sobbing there at the border,” says Belland recalling her time in no-man’s-land between countries. She was banished from the U.S. for three years and didn’t have the $1,500 Canada required to re-enter.
Finally, her brother-in-law arranged payment of the automobile tax and Belland set about trying to find an exception to the rule keeping her out of the U.S. She called an immigration attorney in Billings, who said she could apply for a waiver, but didn’t stand much of a chance of being allowed to cross back into the U.S. during the next three years—even to sell her house and collect her belongings.
Back in Hamilton, the life Noni and Lauren left continues on without them. Noni’s employer at Bitterroot Valley Eye Associates has tried to hire someone to cover for Belland, but has found slim pickings among available workers in Hamilton.
“We can’t find a replacement,” says Belland’s supervisor, Carol Calderwood. Calderwood says she didn’t know Belland was working illegally, and has since tried to get her a visa. However, nothing seems to be going Belland’s way. Her father passed away recently and she’s been living out of a small suitcase she packed a month ago, thinking her trip to Canada would be a quick one. Belland and her daughter have found a one-bedroom apartment in Creston, B.C., where Lauren may soon enroll in the high school.
A sophomore at Hamilton High School, Lauren was a starting member of last year’s state championship soccer team. The teenager was born in the U.S. and is an American citizen. But in order to be with her mother during her last three years of high school, Lauren will have to attend class in Canada.
“The crux of the issue is that Mrs. Belland has been in the United States working illegally,” says Mike Milne, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. “She was deemed excludable from the United States.”
Milne says Belland might qualify for a tourist visa, but it will be at least three years before she’s truly allowed to return to her life in Hamilton.