How did the U.S. Department of Homeland Security get hold of "confidential" medical records that indicated a wheelchair-bound Canadian woman's "mental illness" episode, which was then used to refuse her entry into the United States? The case has sparked numerous heated online debates.
50-year-old Ellen Richardson intended to fly from Canada to New York City where she was supposed to leave for a 10-day Caribbean cruise. But she was denied entry into the United States. Richardson told The Star, "I was turned away, I was told, because I had a hospitalization in the summer of 2012 for clinical depression.'' A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent "cited the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 212, which denies entry to people who have had a physical or mental disorder that may pose a 'threat to the property, safety or welfare'' of themselves or others."
The agent gave her a signed document which stated that "system checks'' had found she "had a medical episode in June 2012'' and that because of the "mental illness episode'' she would need a medical evaluation before being accepted.
But how did DHS know this about Richardson? An online search leads to Richardson's book that documented how she became paralyzed and about her bouts of depression. So are CBP agents "Googling" people, or checking social media posts to vet visas? DHS isn't saying anything other than privacy laws prevent the agency from discussing specific cases. Richardson said she's "been on several cruises since 2001, all of which required U.S. flights, with no problems."
Two Canadians officials told Torstar News Service that they sent letters to "provincial and federal privacy commissioners to find out how the health information of Ellen Richardson came to be shared with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security."
In the past, when Customs and Border Protection officers were accused of stopping Canadians with mental illness from entering the U.S., it was believed DHS learned about suicide attempts from shared databases that include Canadian police records such as 911 suicide calls. Other times, it was believed U.S. authorities knew about mental illness from what the applicants filled out on their visa forms. The Star suggested, "Border refusal for depressed paraplegic shows Canada-U.S. security co-operation has gone too far."
At this point, it is unknown how CBP knew about Richardson's depression; reports of this case did not reference if she mentioned mental illness on her visa application, or if she filled out the application with information that vastly differs from her past visas that allowed her to enter the U.S.
According to the U.S. State Department Foreign Affairs Visa Manual "40.11 Medical Grounds of Ineligibility" [pdf], aliens are ineligible to receive visas or be granted entry into the U.S. based on various health-related grounds. These include such things as having a "communicable disease," "determined to be a drug abuser or addict," or determined "to have had a physical or mental disorder and a history of behavior associated with the disorder, which behavior has posed a threat to the property, safety, or welfare of the alien or others and which behavior is likely to recur or to lead to other harmful behavior."
Although the last part of that might hint at depression-induced suicide attempts, another portion of the visa manual seems to expressly forbid holding suicide attempts against visa applicants. Richardson did attempt suicide in the past, but don't suicide attempts also involve depression, which is considered a mental illness? Is this another example of government double-speak?
According to 9 FAM 40.21(a) Notes and determining ineligibility [pdf], "When adjudicating a visa application for an applicant whom you (consular officer) have reason to believe has committed a crime involving moral turpitude..." then it lists what does and does not count as moral turpitude. Near the end of the document, it states (in part), "Crimes committed against the person, family relationship, or sexual morality which do not involve moral turpitude include:" Mailing an obscene letter; Libel; Illegitimacy (i.e., the offense of begetting an illegitimate child); and Suicide (attempted).
It will be interesting to find out if CBP knew about Richardson's mental illness as the result of a troubling privacy breach. Was it something included on the visa application, a result of shared police records about a 911 call, another ridiculous "you might be a terrorist if" list, gleaned from an online search, or some government agent's mistake? Richardson said the 2012 hospitalization was for depression and did not involve any call to Canadian police. Was private "confidential" health information included on a database shared with DHS? An Ontario health ministry official said U.S. authorities "do not have access to medical or other health records for Ontarians traveling to the U.S."
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Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. Smith has a diverse background in information technology, programming, web development, IT consulting, and information security. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.
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