Second-year University of Sherbrooke student-athlete Yassine Aber was not present in Boston for a track and field competition this weekend as originally planned. The 19-year-old, who was born in Canada, was questioned at the U.S.-Canada border in Stanstead, Que. on Thursday and denied entry.
Aber, whose parents are originally from Morocco, says he was travelling with a Canadian passport valid until 2026. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials provided Aber with the following reason for denied entry after he gave up his phone and its password:
“You are deemed inadmissible to the United States today pursuant to section 212(a)(7)(A)(i)(I) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended, as an immigrant who, at the time of application for admission, is not in possession of a valid unexpired immigrant visa, reentry permit, border crossing card or other valid entry document required by the Act, and a valid unexpired passport, or other suitable travel document, or document of identity and nationality as required under the regulations issued by the Attorney General under section 211(a) of the Act.”
According to CBC News, it’s believed that Aber is one of five Canadians with “Moroccan roots” who have been denied entry in recent weeks. United States President Donald Trump issued an executive order in January, which has since been suspended, temporarily banning visitors from seven countries, Morocco not included. CBC News reported that a connection between Aber and Samir Halilovic, a former Sherbrooke student believed to have fled to Syria to join Islamist fighters, may have been the reason for Aber’s inability to enter the U.S. The two were seen in the same Facebook photo four years ago.
Canadian Running caught up with Aber on Saturday, two days after his attempted trip to Boston.
CR: Have you ever had trouble crossing the Canada-U.S. border before?
Yassine Aber: “Absolutely not. I have been to the United States for track competitions in the past including in New York City as well as travelling there for training camps in 2015 and 2016. I’ve travelled to the U.S. several times with family and have never had any sort of problems. This was the first time I was asked to exit the vehicle at the border.”
Who were you travelling with?
“There was a mini-van of five athletes and a coach. Between 20-25 athletes travelled to Boston in total, split among vehicles. My group waited for me the entire time. Teammates were free to go at any point. Really, I didn’t want them to come back with me, there was a race to be run in an attempt to make nationals standard. I wouldn’t have accepted if they attempted to return with me.”
What was the sequence of events when you arrived at the border?
“We arrived at the border and were asked to enter a small garage. We left our phones in the vehicle. They requested my phone and passport and kept my phone for five hours. I couldn’t see what the border officers were doing with it. The agents took me in for two interviews, both of which were 20 minutes. I gave fingerprints and they took pictures. It was stressful; the remainder of the team was already, or almost, in Boston.”
What did the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents ask?
“During the first interview, it was basic questions. What I study, what I do, the places I’ve worked, my age, the countries I’ve travelled to, the names of my parents and where they have lived and their country of birth and how much time they spent in Canada. During the second portion, it was more precise. They asked me what mosque I frequent, and how often, the names of my friends and the specifics of certain people. There was a long wait between the two interviews. I couldn’t tell if any of my answers caused any concern. There was never a moment when the officers cringed or anything.”
What countries have you visited?
“The United States for many reasons including for vacation with family and for athletics. I’ve been to the Dominican Republic, Morocco on multiple occasions.”
What did the border agents ask you about Samir Halilovic?
“They asked me about him but didn’t mention a photo. The photo was from a wedding four years ago. We just happened to be in the same photo. I told them that I didn’t know him personally, only by face. I told them all the specifics that I know. It was the press that told me about the photo. Border agents didn’t tell me that was the reason I was denied entry; there was no official reason.”
How did you get back home?
“The coach dropped me off at a nearby town. I called my brother to pick me up.”
How did your story get out?
“Teammates, some of who were in Boston and others in Sherbrooke still, were quick to hear what happened. One teammate asked if she could contact the news. My family and I came to the decision that it was perhaps a good idea to speak out and I spoke to a local radio station. That’s where it [attracting country-wide attention] started.”
Did the border patrol officers ever ask anything that you found inappropriate?
“They were never mean to me. There were no disrespectful questions. The interview was long and the whole process was stressful but there was nothing aimed at me in an insulting way or any attempt to expose me in some manner.”
What was the difference this time compared to previous times you crossed the border? Do you believe politics were involved?
“Much of everything was the same. There were perhaps less people this time and we were travelling on a different day than usual [Thursday instead of a Friday]. I don’t want to get into the politics. I don’t know what’s happening clearly in the United States at the moment.”
How did you feel in the moment?
“The whole process was stressful but the most frustrating thing was not being able to run in Boston and not helping my relay team try to get the standard or the times we needed. I was able to stay positive thanks to all the support I received from coaches, teammates, the community at-large and people that I didn’t even know.”
Does this affect your views on social media or what you post online?
“I’ll see what I can do to be a bit more safe. I’ll pay attention to what I’m posting; I don’t have anything to hide. I think I need to be a bit more safe and conservative about what I post. The university staff told our team to be safe about what we post and what we say. We represent the university/team and the community.”
This interview was been edited for clarity.