Windsor braces for refugee tide
Scores of illegals are fleeing north from the United States; Mexico's ambassador warns thousands more could follow
PAUL WALDIE and ALAN FREEMAN AND TARA PERKINS
Jessica Rafuse, Special to the Globe and Mail
September 22, 2007
TORONTO, OTTAWA and WINDSOR — A sudden flood of Mexican refugee claimants pouring into Windsor has left local officials scrambling and raised fears about how many more may be on their way.
Mexico's ambassador to Canada echoed that concern yesterday, conjuring the spectre of hundreds of thousands heading north to escape rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.
“If you think that in the U.S. there are perhaps eight million illegals, if you get just 5 per cent of the people who don't feel secure in the U.S. who want to come to Canada as refugees, that would be 400,000 people,” Emilio Goicoechea told The Globe and Mail.
The ambassador said he fears that if the influx turns into a flood, Ottawa will slap visa restrictions on all Mexican citizens visiting Canada.
“We're really concerned about it. We have a visa-free status we'd like to keep.”
In the last three weeks, 220 people, most of them Mexican, have shown up at Windsor's border crossings and applied for refugee status. Many had driven with their families from Florida, where they had been living illegally for years. Nearly all the claimants arrived with Canadian refugee application forms already completed, many containing the same wording. Several said they paid up to $400 (U.S.) to have the form completed by a Florida-based immigration agency.
“There's no way that we can cope with this,” Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis said yesterday after 20 more applicants arrived.
“I just don't have the infrastructure or the resources.”
The mayor wrote to Ottawa earlier this week pleading for financial help.
“When there is a possibility of adding thousands to the local social assistance system as a result of refugee claimants crossing the border into Windsor, we will become overwhelmed and our current resources will not suffice,” Mr. Francis wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday.
Mr. Francis said yesterday he is afraid that word has spread across the United States, where anti-immigrant sentiment is running high, that illegal immigrants should head to Canada, where they can get free health care and social assistance.
“The message we are trying to get out is that the promises that are being made are false promises.”
In Ottawa, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Diane Finley said the government is monitoring the situation closely. “We're taking the issue seriously,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the department noted that Canadian officials had met with refugee organizations in the United States that had been spreading the idea that there was automatic entry to Canada.
“There is no special program for these people,” Karen Shadd-Evelyn said. “Nobody is automatically accepted for refugee status or permanent residence.”
Last year, 3,419 Mexicans claimed refugee status in Canada, but their success rate was low: Only 13 per cent of claimants who had hearings in the first six months of this year were accepted as legitimate refugees, according to Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board.
The recent arrivals in Windsor have been put up at the YMCA, Salvation Army facilities and hotels across the city.
One young man, who said he was 18, came from Florida by bus a few weeks ago. He spent two years there, illegally working in construction, before heading to Canada with two of his brothers, one of whom came on the bus with him and one of whom followed later. He said he arrived at the border with his refugee forms filled out.
Major Wilfred Harbin of the Salvation Army said five more individuals and six families arrived at the centre last night. Single men are able to stay, while women and families are sent on to hotels.
“This has been unreal,” he said. Many of the migrants have already left for other parts of Ontario, although he's not sure where. “They seem to have gone their own way,” he said, estimating that at least 30 have done so.
John Rokakis, a local immigration lawyer, has been trying to help some of the claimants, but he said many have the wrong impression about the refugee process. “A lot of them think by saying 'I'm working' or 'I'm going to work' they'll be fine,” he said. “But that's not what the refugee board has to decide.”
No one is sure what prompted the sudden influx. Many officials in Windsor are blaming a Naples-based organization called Jerusalem Haitian Community Center, or JHCC, for encouraging the exodus.
Jacques Sinjuste, who founded the centre in 2000, said his outfit is not at fault. “We do not tell the Mexicans to apply to go to Canada,” Mr. Sinjuste said. “They have to look where the problem is. Don't look on my organization.”
Mr. Sinjuste, a Haitian immigrant, said he recently fired a senior employee who promoted Canada's refugee system on the centre's website and through interviews with local Spanish-language TV stations. He said JHCC helps people fill out all kinds of forms and he acknowledged charging a fee for completing the Canadian refugee application. But he said part of the fee went to the Detroit office of Freedom House, a non-profit group that works with refugees.
Mr. Sinjuste said an organization from Windsor had been in Florida recently encouraging immigrants to come to Canada. He declined to name the outfit but said he plans to travel to Windsor this week and “release names.”
Pegg Roberts, executive director of Freedom House, said the agency has no ties to JHCC and she sent a letter to the Florida Attorney-General's Office yesterday requesting an investigation into JHCC's activities.
“I am flabbergasted that he would use our name,” Ms. Roberts said yesterday. She said she sent JHCC a letter last year asking that it stop promoting connections to Freedom House on its website. Ms. Roberts said Freedom House does help legitimate refugee claimants file applications in Canada, but the group does not charge a fee and it checks out the claims.
At the Windsor YMCA yesterday, Jacquie Rumiel said she has seen groups ranging from single men to extended families. They largely came from around Naples and are predominantly Mexican or Haitian, she said. The claimants heard about the YMCA through word of mouth.
Carline, a Haitian who had been living in Fort Myers, arrived in Windsor this week with her two children. She fled Florida after her husband was arrested in June and spent two months in prison before being deported to Haiti, where he remains. She's hoping he will join her in Canada at some point.
“We pray to God that Canada gives us a good life,” she said, after describing an existence in Florida that was filled with dread and fear.
APPLYING FOR REFUGEE STATUS
Individuals seeking refugee status must apply from within Canada at Citizenship and Immigration offices or from their point of entry into the country.
To be granted refugee status in Canada, applicants need to prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution or death if they return to their country.
Applicants who fear persecution on the basis of race, religion, political opinion, nationality or a social group, such as one's sexual orientation, are considered to be “convention refugees,” in reference to the Geneva Convention that requires the protection of people who have legitimate claims for asylum.
Those whose lives are at risk and those who will be tortured or subjected to unusual treatment or punishment if they return to their country apply for refugee status as a person in need of protection.
If the initial criteria are met, claims are sent to the Refugee Protection Division in the Immigration and Refugee Board where they are assessed on a case by case basis.
On average, this process takes about 13 months, says Melissa Anderson, spokesperson for the IRB, but it can take six months to years, depending on the complexity of the case.
If the Immigration Appeal Division dismisses the appeal, an individual can ask the Federal Court of Justice for a judicial review of the decision, and remain in the country during this time.
Special to The Globe and Mail