The article below appeared in the Toronto Star June 1st, 2002. Psychiatric
survivors travelling to the United States should be aware of this policy.
Mental illness barrier to border-crossing
Fingerprints, hefty fees required for Toronto man with disorder to visit
Mel Starkman doesn't want to get fingerprinted by the FBI.
He wants even less to pay for the privilege.
But that's one of several requirements the former University of Toronto
archivist must fulfill if he wants to travel to the United States — even for
a short visit.
"I'd have to see a new shrink, get fingerprinted by the Mounties and the
FBI, fill in forms and send the fees necessary for all the paperwork — which
I can't afford," he says with disbelief.
Mel Starkman is not a criminal. Nor is he a terrorist.
The potential problem, at least in the eyes of the U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS), is that Starkman has been diagnosed with a
major mental illness. As a result, he's expected to fulfill a number of
bureaucratic requirements he and others are calling discriminatory.
"It's a human right to travel. And this is an infringement on my rights," he
says. "I'm a decent, law-abiding citizen who will admit to having had
problems in living... Does that make me a second-class citizen?"
Sure makes him feel like one, he says.
Just over two weeks ago, Starkman was selected to attend a supportive
housing conference in New York City June 13-14. He was chosen because the
61-year-old is a valued volunteer on the Edmond Yu Safe House Project, which
plans to eventually build transitional housing for homeless people with
serious mental health issues. The organization is named after the
35-year-old homeless schizophrenic shot dead by Toronto police in 1997 after
a confrontation on a bus.
Starkman was excited at both the prospect of learning about new housing
models, and the opportunity to take a trip. His expenses were going to be
paid, and travel is a luxury he simply can't afford on his total annual
income of roughly $8,000.
"Not since 1981 have I been on a trip. And I haven't been to New York since
1973," he says.
But someone with the project thought there might be problems at the border.
Calls were placed to the U.S. consulate in Toronto and the INS in Buffalo.
Were there any restrictions, they asked, for people diagnosed with a serious
"Technically speaking, you have to have a waiver to go across in a
circumstance like that," explains Rob Callard, chief of the non-immigrant
visa section at the U.S consulate in Toronto.
The policy has been in place for decades, and it means Starkman, diagnosed
with schizo-affective disorder, would have to apply for pre-approval if he
wanted to visit the country legally.
Charmaine Frado, the project's development co-ordinator, was stunned at the
"Any other person in the country could just get on a plane and go to the
United States," she says. "But anybody with a psychiatric history runs the
risk of being caught at the border and not allowed in."
The waiver requires applicants to be assessed by a new psychiatrist named by
the U.S. government. A hopeful visitor must agree to full release of their
psychiatric history to American authorities. It means getting fingerprinted
by the FBI and the RCMP. It means paying non-refundable fees totalling
nearly $350 (U.S.) And it means waiting up to five months for an answer.
"In my experience, most of those folks that have that kind of disability get
through on a waiver," says Callard. "There are a few who haven't... If
you're going to attack the passenger next to you with an ice pick, they
(INS) need to know it," he says.
Although Callard was being semi-facetious, that assumption is the underlying
reason for the rule: a widespread perception that people with a diagnosis of
a serious psychiatric disorder are more dangerous than the general
While headlines on some high-profile cases may make that appear to be the
case, scientists and advocates say the data does not support such broad
`Anybody with a psychiatric history runs the risk of ... not being allowed
Even Rob Callard says any potential relationship is "miniscule," and
acknowledges the rule is an affront to some.
"It (the rule) casts a wider net so you can catch the people you really want
to catch. And it always offends the people who shouldn't have to be caught
by the net."
A major U.S. organization that specializes in mental health law was stunned
to hear that this particular net exists at all.
"It seems to me that it would be an impossible case to make, that it would
be appropriate to screen out people with mental illness," said Ira Burnim,
legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington.
Burnim says if the goal is to screen potentially violent persons, border
officials would fare better examining other criteria.
"If you're looking for people who have high crime rates — poor, urban,
unemployed young males is probably a good category. You're going to get a
lot more bang for your buck than you would for mental illness," he says.
Canada also refuses entry to some travellers who have a mental illness, but
it only happens "from time to time," says Susan Scarlett, spokesperson for
Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
In 1999, four delegates from Moscow who hoped to attend a Toronto conference
on rehabilitation said they were denied visas because they had a psychiatric
diagnosis. Scarlett, however, says people are never refused solely on that
"If the person is stable, if they're balanced, if they're not presenting in
a way that would cause concern to us, then that (diagnosis) should not be a
barrier to them being able to come and visit Canada," she says.
Although she could not provide a number, Scarlett says there are "a handful
of cases" that generally occur at such major points of entry as Toronto and
Vancouver. Sometimes, people are turned away because they are actively
For Canadians with mental illness — and their families — travelling south
can be a harrowing experience.
Schizophrenia Society of Canada president Tony Cerenzia calls the U.S.
regulation "a travesty."
He's speaking from personal experience.
"I have a son who's ill with schizophrenia, and I have another son who lives
in Washington. And when we take one son down to visit his brother, we just
tremble at the border. We have not been stopped, but my wife is riddled with
anxiety until everything goes smoothly," he says.
In fact, the Canadian Mental Health Association says many people with mental
illness fear travelling to the United States. Barbara Everett, CEO of the
Ontario Division, says the organization routinely issues this advice to
members travelling to conferences: Reveal nothing of your psychiatric
"What we do here is brief them: pack your meds in your bags that are
checked, and shut up. Never identify yourself as a consumer," she advises.
"I can't imagine the interrogation you're going to get. It's better to lie."
Mel Starkman considered, briefly, doing just that. Simply showing up at the
airport, tucking his pills away in his suitcase, hoping no one asked.
The prospect, however, frightened him.
Now, he says, there's just no point in applying — on grounds of both
principle and logic.
Even if he could afford the fees, his approval — or refusal — could take
until late October to be processed. Months after the conference he so wanted
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