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Suicide profiling at US border investigated

If your medical history includes a suicide attempt – don’t expect US border security to treat you the same as everyone else. Jackson Proskow reports on a cautionary tale about the information age.

Ellen Richardson is one of an estimated 75,000 Canadians who attempt suicide every year—the kind of self-harm often associated with a history of mental illness. She’s undergone years of therapy, has written a memoir and, through her website, helps other people suffering depression. She’s bright, lucid and happens to be in a wheelchair.

As part of her therapy she enjoys Caribbean cruises, like the one sponsored by the March of Dimes, which she signed up for and paid in full last year at a cost of nearly $6000.

After a suicide attempt, Ellen Richardson was told she would need clearance from doctors approved by Homeland Security in order to cross the border.
After a suicide attempt, Ellen Richardson was told she would need clearance from doctors approved by Homeland Security in order to cross the border. 16x9

But when she went to Pearson Airport last November to board her flight to the U.S., she was confronted by a border agent who asked her a question she never expected to hear from anyone but her doctor: Could she tell him about her suicide attempt in 2012 that landed her in a hospital? (She’d taken an overdose of pills.)

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WATCH: Lois Kamenitz tells 16X9 she was told she couldn’t enter the U.S. until she submitted her full medical history to Homeland Security.

Ellen was aghast. An agent of a foreign government was asking her about her medical history. That was bad enough. But there was more. If she hoped to cross into the US, she was told, Ellen would have to get clearance from one of a handful of doctors approved by US Homeland Security, and she would have to expose her full medical history to their scrutiny.

“What does this have to do with my vacation?” she asked. The agent told her that under Section 212 of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, she was considered a security problem. She might expose people or property to risk through some random act of self-inflicted mayhem. She needed bureaucratic cleansing before she could set foot on American soil.

As it happened, Ellen could not get the needed medical clearance in time, so she lost the holiday, lost the therapeutic benefit the cruise would have provided, and lost the money she’d paid for the ticket.

Ellen took her story to Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian. Cavoukian sputtered, fumed, shouted “Outrage!” and started setting some wheels in motion, as only she can do.

ABOVE: An extended interview with Ontario privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian.

The first question she asked was: How? How in blazes did an agent of a foreign government get his hands on the private medical history of a Canadian citizen, a piece of information that can probably never be expunged? She satisfied herself that it did not come from government medical authorities.

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Her inquiries took her to Canadian law enforcement where she found some answers. When a friend or relative of a person attempting suicide dials 9-1-1 for assistance, that information is entered into a police database. And that information is automatically passed on to a national database administered by the RCMP—a resource called CPIC. And, since the 1970’s, the RCMP has shared that information with the FBI.

Why, demanded Cavoukian, is this information-gathering process so indiscriminate? Why are all suicide-attempters lumped together in one great mass of potential risk? Shouldn’t there be a little discretion in how this information is recorded and disseminated?

Andrew Solomon wrote a trenchant piece for The New York Times that said what happened to Ellen Richardson was a “shameful profiling of the mentally ill”. Solomon equated it to the 20-year ban on people with HIV from entering the U.S. that was essentially an act of bureaucratic hysteria.

Police say they need to know about suicides so they can better serve and protect the general population. That may be true. But why, asks Cavoukian, does this data need to he handed to a foreign government, when the vast majority of self-harmers are a threat to no one but themselves?

She’s preparing a report, due in April, that will set some ground-rules for Ontario police forces—rules that may, she hopes, inspire some change in thinking across Canada.

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As for Ellen Richardson, she will probably make another attempt at that Caribbean cruise later this year or next. She’s hoping the US Border Patrol will be more compassionate when she tries again. But in today’s edgy post-9/11 world, security trumps everything including, as in Ellen’s case, privacy.

FULL EPISODE: Global’s 16X9 (February 15, 2014)