Immigrants in an uneasy wait

BRUCE WALLACE March 9 1987

Immigrants in an uneasy wait

BRUCE WALLACE March 9 1987

Immigrants in an uneasy wait


Manuel Navarrate arrived at the Blackpool, Que., border crossing on Feb. 21 with $100, warm clothes and high hopes of beginning a new life in Montreal. Instead, in a scene repeated hundreds of times last week along Canada’s border with the United States, the 25-year-old Salvadoran discovered that the once-porous border had become impenetrable. For refugees like Navarrate, Canada’s tough new immigration procedures imposed not only inconvenience—but fear of deportation from the U.S.

Two days earlier, faced with imminent expulsion as an illegal immigrant, Navarrate had quit his hotel maintenance job in Houston, Tex., closed his bank account and flown to New York City. There, he boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Montreal. But Navar-

rate’s journey was halted just 42 km short of his destination. Canadian border immigration officials, acting on new restrictions introduced one day earlier, turned him away—pending a formal hearing into his case. Last week, as Navarrate adjusted to living with 92 other refugee claimants in a cramped gymnasium run by the Salvation Army in Plattsburgh, N.Y., he expressed concern about his future and said: “Canada is my last hope.”

The effects of Ottawa’s actions were also felt in American cities and towns along the Canadian border, which struggled to contend with an unexpected influx of homeless people turned back at nearby border crossings. And refugee and religious groups in Canada—including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops—were quick to condemn the decision to close the

border. Declared Theresa Pickett, coordinator of the Fort Erie, Ont., Central American Refugee Committee: “If this policy is not reversed and the government is insistent upon destroying the Canadian humanitarian policy, then I am ashamed to be a Canadian.” But federal officials were unmoved. Said Gerald Weiner, minister of state for immigration: “Many people who were not being persecuted or facing death were simply showing up at our door and jumping ahead of real refugees. That tests the generosity of most Canadians.” Weiner insisted that the tighter regulations did not constitute a change in Canadian immigration policy—but were merely an attempt to ensure that legal immigration and refugee procedures were followed. And privately, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office dismissed the opposition of church groups to the new measures as “hyperbole.”

The regulations were introduced on Feb. 20 in response to rising numbers of refugee applicants during the past four months. Under the tightened controls, Ottawa no longer issues temporary permits allowing applicants to enter Canada and find jobs while their claims are processed. Now most claimants must apply from outside the country and await the results of an often-lengthy inquiry process. Most affected by the tougher measures are peo-

pie fleeing 18 violence-torn countries— including El Salvador, Guatemala and Sri Lanka—whose citizens are no longer exempt from these provisions. As a result, more than 600 refugee applicants were turned away at Canada’s 17 ports of entry last week. Most of

those turned back were Central Americans, who had been living illegally in the United States. Their flight from U.S. sanctuaries was prompted by a tough new American employment law introduced last November. The law, which takes effect next June 1, allows deportation of aliens and imposes financial penalties on employers who hire them. According to Joseph Azar, execu-

tive director of the Central American Refugee Centre just outside New York City, an estimated 100,000 Salvadorans alone are living illegally in the New York area, afraid of increased firings and immigration raids. Said Azar: “Everybody who comes into our office wants to go to Canada because of the fear here.” Undocumented Central Americans, added Monica Schurtman, a counsellor at the Center for Immigrants’ Rights in New York, “have always seen Canada as their last place of refuge.”

Word that Canadian authorities had closed the border spread quickly among illegal aliens in U.S. cities—especially in Los Angeles, whose large Spanish-speaking population includes thousands of Central Americans threatened by Washington’s new immigration laws. Said Joan Atkinson, who handles immigration affairs at Canada’s consulate in Los Angeles: “The refugee organizations knew almost as soon as we did that the border was closed.” In some cases, the news provoked desperation. Said Sergio Muñoz, executive editor of La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles: “It’s the talk of the barrio, a terrible situation. We are finding people who are selling the few goods they have, going to the border and being turned away.”

Still, some refugee applicants did make it into Canada. About 190 who landed at airports in Quebec and Ontario in the first two days after the

rule changes were allowed to stay while their claims were processed. The air route did not close until Ottawa threatened Brazilian, Chilean and Argentine airlines with fines of $1,000 for every passenger who disembarked without a visa.

Canada’s firm stance stranded 107 Chileans at an airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They had been on their way to join family and friends already in Canada when the clampdown was announced. In response, 20 Chilean immigrants and supporters last week began a hunger strike in the basement of a downtown Montreal church, aimed at forcing Ottawa to admit the group. Said Michael Perreira, 31, whose wife is among those still in Argentina: “I will continue my hunger strike until I see my wife in Canada.”

At highway border crossings, the number of refugee applicants slowed as the week wore on. At Blackpool, Que., where the number of people arriving on buses from New York City had reached 100 a day by the time Ottawa announced the new regulations, immigration officials said the flow had slowed to fewer than 25 a day. Some Latin Americans continued to seek admission at the Fort Erie, Ont., crossing. There, they were processed in a panelled trailer, fingerprinted, given a hearing date and told to return to the U.S. side of the Peace Bridge. American authorities then gave the applicants permission to stay in the U.S. for 30 days. But some people took advantage of their problems; taxi drivers on the American side of the border charged their passengers $12 for the one-kilometre trip across Peace Bridge—more than double the regular fare.

Fears were also voiced for the safety of those turned back at the border. Canadian officials acknowledged that they do not have a formal guarantee that none would be deported by American authorities. Still, they said they have a firm “understanding” with Washington that no moves would be taken against anyone who registered with Canadian immigration officers.

The sealed frontier also presented problems for American cities near the Canadian border. Most refugee hopefuls had arrived at the border with little money and little intention of returning home. Now many face waits of four to eight weeks before their cases will be heard by Canadian officials. The resulting surge in the number of homeless people severely taxed the ability of towns to handle them.

In Lackawanna, N.Y., just 11 km from Peace Bridge, a dilapidated, green-shingled former convent became an improvised refugee camp, known to its 78 mostly Central American refugee applicants simply as casa—Span-

ish for house. In Plattsburgh, 95 km south of Montreal, the Salvation Army gym was turned into a makeshift hostel for nearly 100 refugee applicants.

But the added food bills for the Plattsburgh refugee community alone were expected to reach $30,000 to $40,000 —prompting social service officials to ask New York Gov. Mario Cuomo for disaster relief funds. And some social workers said they feared the long-term effects of housing so many refugees in cramped quarters until their hearing dates. Said Capt. Jack Holcomb, commanding officer of the Plattsburgh Salvation Army: “This is a compassionate community, which has responded to fellow human beings who are in trouble. But this is a problem made by national governments, and we hope it will be resolved before we are forced to find the limits of local tolerance.”

Others expressed concern that the patience of refugee applicants and assistance organizations might dissipate during the interval before hearings. And although Canadian law calls for fines of up to $5,000 and a maximum of two years in jail for people harboring illegal aliens, some church organizations acknowledged that they were weighing the possibility of sneaking refugees across the border. Nancy Pocock, president of the Toronto Refugee Affairs Committee, said she would consider underground methods of bringing refugees into Canada. Said Pocock: “They haven’t come this far to give up. They’re desperate people.” But Weiner said there was no basis for such action. Said the minister: “Many of these people have been living in the U.S. for the past five years. Three or four more weeks won’t matter.”

In fact, Weiner contended that refugee-assistance groups were appealing to public opinion in anticipation of a planned overhaul of the refugee provisions of Canada’s immigration act. The bill, now being studied by cabinet, is expected to bé presented to the House of Commons this month. Said Weiner: “The church groups are not fighting today’s battle. They are preparing for the debate ahead on the legislation.” But there were also warnings that increasing numbers of prospective refugees will try to enter Canada. Said Alex Dantzer, a Canadian immigration officer in New York: “With an illegal Central American community of 100,000 to 150,000 people in New York, it could get a lot worse.” That forecast—and the intense feelings provoked by Ottawa’s new rules—indicated that the government faces further controversy when it brings down its immigration bill.

—BRUCE WALLACE in Montreal with SHERRI AIKENHEAD in Fort Erie, LARRY BLACK in New York and ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles