The underground railroad to Canada

Ann Finlayson May 13 1985

The underground railroad to Canada

Ann Finlayson May 13 1985

The underground railroad to Canada


Ann Finlayson

Rosa Martinez, a 20-year-old Salvadoran refugee, applied for asylum in Canada at a Windsor immigration hearing in June, 1983, before senior immigration officer Melanie Lukaniuk. She asked Martinez why she had fled El Salvador.

Q. You stated that you are afraid to return to El Salvador because of your political and social affiliations. Would you explain to us what has happened and why you have come to Canada, and explain your fears.

A. I was pregnant, and they killed the father of the baby.

Q. Who killed the father of the baby ?

A. An organization called the White Hand, or the Death Squad.

Q. The Death Squad told you they would kill you?

A. I saw when they killed him and they said to me, ‘You will be the next one.’

Q. You were in the United States. Why was it that you never applied for refugee status in that country?

A. Because the United States does not help anybody, just returns them to El Salvador.

The odyssey began in San Miguel, El Salvador, in May, 1982. Rosa Martinez (a pseudonym) made her way through Guatemala to Mexico by car. Ten days later she illegally crossed the American border at Tijuana and took a bus from San Diego to Los Angeles, where she disappeared into the city’s huge community of illegal aliens. Two weeks later she had a baby. After one year of living underground Martinez had managed to save $100 from money she earned babysitting for other people. In June, 1983, she and her infant daughter bought a $99 ticket and boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Canada, where she applied for refugee status at the border. Friends in Los Angeles had told her that Canada would accept her. Said Martinez, who now is awaiting landed immigrant status and is living in Toronto: “I knew that Canada would help and I hoped that I could be legal and work.”

For Martinez—and almost 1,000 others like her last year—Canada has become the last stop on a latter-day Underground Railroad. Between 1979 and 1983 more than 50,000 Guatemalans and 250,000 Salvadorans fled their countries’ U.S.-backed military regimes. Last year, according to Arthur Helton, director of the political asylum project of the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, a further one mil-

lion left the troubled countries. Many have illegally entered the United States, where they hope to continue eluding immigration authorities. And often, with the aid of a loosely organized, semiclandestine network of about 250 church and community groups in America and Canada, Salvadorans and Guatemalans

illegally in the United States make their way to Canada.

Helping them are members of a movement that merges the medieval Christian tradition of religious sanctuary and the more modern practice of civil disobedience. One reason for doing so: the U.S. administration routinely denies most Central American requests for asylum—particularly those made by Salvadorans and Guatemalans. By contrast Canada is studying ways of speeding up the process of granting refugee

status—and planning to accept more Central American refugees this year.

Traditionally, Canada and the United States have been beacons of hope for victims of political oppression in other countries. But there is a marked divergence of policy between the two countries on Central American refugees. For

one thing, Ottawa will sponsor 3,000 Latin American refugees in 1985—an increase of 500 from last year. About 2,000 of those will be Central Americans, many of them currently held in United States and Mexican detention camps. After gaining official sponsorship in interviews with immigration officials those detainees will fly directly to Canada. In 1984 Ottawa spent about $7.3 million resettling the 2,595 Latin American refugees it sponsored. Noted Tom Clark, co-ordinator of the Toronto-

based Inter-Church Committee for Refugees, representing eight national church bodies: “The Americans are not living up to their obligations as signatories of United Nations protocols [on refugees]. And given the official American position on these people, the Canadian government has taken a courageous stand.” Added Raphael Girard, director of refugee affairs for the federal ministry of employment and immigration: “The United States has done more for refugees than the rest of the world put together. This situation, I am afraid, is an anomaly.”

For its part, the Reagan administration—which supports the governments of Guatemalan leader Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores and Salvadoran President José Napoleón Duarte—insists that most of the illegal aliens from Central America are economic migrants seeking relief from the grinding poverty of the region. U.S. officials maintain that most of those people seeking refugee status cannot demonstrate the “well-founded fear of persecution” necessary to gain political asylum. As a result, last year the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) granted asylum to fewer than three per cent (328 of 13,373) of all Salvadorans and to only 93 Salvadorans and no Guatemalans who applied for refugee status from outside the United States. This year the United States will admit 70,000 refugees in addition to the normal ceiling of 270,000 immigrants. Only 3,000 of that number, including mostly Cubans and some Nicaraguans, will come from Latin America. Although the UN Human Rights Commission does not recognize Nicaragua as having a serious human rights problem, the U.S. success rate for Nicaraguans who claimed that they had fled the left-wing Sandinista regime, which the Reagan government officially condemns, was 18.5 per cent last year—906 granted and 4,883 denied. At the same time the INS deported Guatemalans and Salvadorans at the rate of 400 each month in 1984.

The Reagan administration has been investigating the sanctuary movement for more than a year. Last January the U.S. justice department indicted 16 sanctuary workers in Arizona for transporting and sheltering illegal aliens. Those indictments and the arrest of more than 60 Central Americans in seven U.S. cities took place after an investigation conducted with the aid of wire taps, undercover agents and sophisticated surveillance devices, INS officials insist that the arrests were a normal part of their duties. Said INS spokesman Verne Jervis: “We have not targeted the sanctuary movement or the people involved in it. The investigations are routine.”

Still, last March a Brownsville, Tex.,

court found 41-year-old Catholic lay worker Jack Elder guilty of assisting Salvadoran refugees to enter the United States illegally. Elder faced a maximum of 30 years in prison, but instead federal district Judge Filemon Vela sentenced him to 150 days in a halfway house, because, he said, “I admire your motivation.” At the same time, Stacey Lynn Merkt, a 30-year-old Methodist volunteer found guilty of conspiring to take the Salvadorans to a bus station, is appealing a six-month jail sentence. Merkt was on probation for a similar offence last year.

Ministers, priests, nuns and laymen involved in the struggle to help refugees say that the arrests indicate that the sanctuary movement is angering Washington. Said Christopher Ferguson, a United Church minister in Montreal

who works with several Montreal-area refugee support groups: “There is an ideological war going on in the United States.” At the same time, church support for the sanctuary movement has grown—on both sides of the border. Last month representatives from 20 Canadian and U.S. church groups, among them officials from the U.S. Catholic Conference and the Christian Task Force on Central America from Vancouver, objected to the monthly deportations of Salvadorans and Guatemalans from the United States. And in Montreal, the Tyndale-St. George’s community centre, which runs a refugee program funded jointly by the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, established links with a sanctuary church in Bur-

lington, Vt., in March. Said mission codirector Joseph Reed: “We are prepared to aid them by meeting refugees at the border or at Mirabel Airport and to help them contact Canadian immigration officials. The situation for these people if they are deported from the United States is grim.”

As a result, many illegal aliens do not risk applying for refugee status in the United States. Some of them disappear into the large Hispanic communities of California and the American southwest, while others seek refugee status through Canadian consulates in American cities. Said Windsor, Ont., lawyer Rose Voyvodic: “Many of them do not know that they can apply from within the United States or they are frightened that American authorities will pick them up when they approach our consu-

lates—or they simply do not want to wait months for their claims to be processed.” Voyvodic is a former chairman of the Windsor Central American Refugee Sponsorship Network, an organization that has helped more than 50 Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees across the border from Detroit in the past two years.

Carlos Neuschwander, for one, manager in Washington of the Mennonite Immigration and Refugee Program, is also critical of procedures at some Canadian consulates, particularly those in Los Angeles and Chicago. Said Neuschwander, who co-ordinates North American Mennonite efforts to win release for Salvadorans and Guatemalans held in detention camps in Texas, Arizona,

Utah and California: “It all depends on how sympathetic and knowledgeable the individual officials there are. They can sometimes be very stringent.“ Those difficulties have convinced hundreds of illegal immigrants to try to go directly to Canada—either on their own or with the help of American volunteers. Ronald Garcia, for one (not his real name), who now lives in Castonguay, Que., went into hiding in the Guatemalan countryside three years ago after unidentified gunmen fired at him near his home in Guatemala City. Several months later Garcia’s father found him a job on an American ship where Garcia surrendered his passport to the ship’s captain to forestall any attempt to enter the United States illegally.

But he jumped ship in Halifax last August. Then, after travelling to Montreal he contacted an interfaith refugee support group which helped him apply for political asylum. The result: he has had landed immigrant status since December. Added Garcia: “It has been difficult for me in many ways, the language and the customs. I hope to return to see my family when the situation improves in my country. But if I had remained there, now I would be dead.”

Still, most Canadian support groups discourage refugees from entering Canada without papers. At the same time, American church workers, including

Neuschwander, make a point of working with U.S. officials—precisely because their efforts are politically sensitive. Said Neuschwander: “We do not want to create even the impression that we are doing anything illegal.”

He noted however that in “desperate situations”

Canadians had helped American volunteers to bring undocumented refugees into Canada.

Then, once across the border the Central Americans initiate a claim for refugee status by reporting to the first customs or immigration official they encounter.

Said Clark: “From the Canadian point of view, it is legally obscure. The Immigration Act does not foresee this situation.” Officials agree that the system is not designed to deal with prospective immigrants who

simply turn up in Cana-

da. Added Girard: “Our position is that these groups would have far fewer problems if they transacted their business through the consulates.”

Refugees who report to Canadian officials have the right to a hearing, where

they can argue their case for refugee status. In 1984, 78 of the 136 Guatemalans and 163 of the 663 Salvadorans who arrived without papers at airports and border crossings received permission to stay in the country. Even those who fail to gain refugee status are still protected, because Canada stopped returning unsuccessful Salvadoran applicants to their homeland in 1981 and banned deportations to Guatemala last year. Instead, immigration officials review the cases annually, and the applicants are allowed to stay in Canada as long as the bans are in effect. Most are also allowed to work.

Many volunteers contend that the government should be admitting more people from El Salvador and Guatemala. For his part, Ferguson also criticizes the slowness of the system, noting that there is currently a backlog of 18,000 applicants for permanent residence in Canada —some waiting as long as five years for a decision. He and others are hopeful that federal Employment and Immigration Minister Flora MacDonald will accept the recommendations in a report prepared by Toronto rabbi W. Gunther Plaut.

MacDonald is expected to release the report later this month. For his part, Plaut noted that not separating bona fide refugees from would-be immigrants who simply wanted to stay in the country had clogged the system. Added Plaut: “The complexity really arises from our desire to be fair. This has created a backlog and it has created abuse. The unfortunate thing is that the real refugees get caught up in this.” Still, for the hundreds of Salvadorans and Guatemalans who await deportation in U.S. and Mexican detention camps, Canada is the last hope, according to the Mennonites’ Neuschwander. He declared: “As long as the foreign policy of the United States in Central America remains as it is, Washington will refuse to respect the human rights of the refugees. That is why the churches are prepared to challenge that policy in the United States and to act according to a higher law.” For the Canadian government, accustomed to working closely with the United States on refugee relief, the challenge is more subtle. Each refugee who finds sanctuary in Canada is a quiet reminder that on this issue, at least, Canada and the United States have agreed to disagree.