It was only by chance that 22 former political prisoners from El Salvador landed in Canada just hours after Immigration Minister Lloyd Axworthy announced new plans to crack down on illegal immigrants. But the coincidence underscored Canada’s continuing struggle to make its immigration program both humane and politically defensible. The Salvadorans’ claim to a Canadian sanctuary was compelling: they were admitted as immigrants because they were in danger of death squads in their own country. The issue of the estimated 50,000 “illegals,” on the other hand, is less easily settled. Axworthy last week proposed some tentative steps to reassure a suspicious public that the government has that problem in hand. “I cannot and will not condone breaking of the law,” he told the Commons immigration committee. “However, in the case of illegal immigration, the law must be enforced with sensitivity, compassion and humanity.”
In general, Axworthy adopted the recommendations contained in the report of a six-month study of illegal immigration by special adviser Gerry Robinson, a Vancouver lawyer and former national director of the Liberal party. The report put the number of illegals now in Canada at a maximum of 50,000—a far cry from the 200,000 estimated by a federal advisory council last November. Axworthy ruled out a general amnesty for the illegals, nearly all of whom come as visitors and simply stay beyond the three-month legal limit. And he did not accept recommendations from some quarters that all illegals should be automatically deported. Instead, he proposed case-by-case decisions for long-term illegals who apply for landed immigrant status. Favorable factors, he said, would include family ties (including Canadian-born children), a job and “successful establishment in the community” for at least five years. At the same time, immigration authorities are working with the RCMP on ways to find and prosecute more employers of illegal immigrants.
To stanch the flow of illegals to Canada, Axworthy said that he will urge the cabinet to impose visa requirements on visitors from “certain countries” whose citizens currently can visit Canada visa-free. But he refused to specify which countries he had in mind. Visa exemptions have been withdrawn from 12 countries since 1977, including India
in 1981, but about 80 countries are still exempt. Axworthy argued that it is cheaper and more effective to screen visitors abroad than to try to find and deport them once in Canada. His department is also planning a two-month pilot project requiring visitors to fill in yellow landing cards on incoming flights to improve the airport screening system. Some incoming flights will be chosen at random for special documentation of visitors.
The minister also promised administrative changes to unclog the over-
loaded refugee appeal process. More than 7,000 applications are already on file, in various appeal stages, from people in Canada seeking immigrant status as refugees. On average, fewer than one-third are ultimately accepted as genuine. Said Axworthy: “An effective method must be established to deal with abusive claims.”
Among MPs who are sensitive to public skepticism about immigration—especially in a recession—reaction to the Axworthy proposals was cautious. Liberal Ursula Appolloni, whose YorkSouth Weston riding in Toronto is well populated with immigrants, was scornful of Axworthy’s estimate of 50,000 illegals across the country. “Robinson could probably find 50,000 in my riding,” she said. Appolloni predicted caseby-case assessments would become an “open sesame” that would only provide
jobs for hungry immigration lawyers. Ontario Conservative MP John McDermid wondered whether the Axworthy plan would just encourage illegals to “go underground” for a few years, then gamble on winning legal status. Replied Axworthy: “It is not a good bet.”
The Robinson report concluded that illegals are drawn to Canada by the combined pull of family ties and the prospect of work. About 95 per cent enter Canada legally—usually as visitors—and typically slip into a clandestine life sheltered by relatives or
friends and confined to menial labor. The report suggests that the illegals’ burden on the economy might well be minimal, since their need for secrecy discourages claims for public welfare or even tax refunds. In fact, the report says Canada’s problem with illegals “pales in comparison” to that of countries in Europe, Africa or Asia. The United States, with its porous border with Mexico, now has an illegal population estimated between 3.5 million and six million.
Historian Irving Abella of Toronto’s York University has harshly criticized Canada’s former immigration practices, but on balance finds Axworthy’s record praiseworthy. Even so, he is wary about public opinion: “Even
though we have this mythology about welcoming immigrants, every opinion poll shows we do not want too many.”'O’
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