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Immigration Tribunals Stressed As Refugee Applicants Arrive In Canada On Foot

Migrant advocate Esther Guillaume helps arrange housing for two men from Nigeria who crossed illegally into Canada in November 2017.
Lorne Matalon
Migrant advocate Esther Guillaume helps arrange housing for two men from Nigeria who crossed illegally into Canada in November 2017.

The flow of people seeking refugee status in Canada has grown exponentially in recent months. More people have walked into the province of Quebec since August than in all of 2016 across the entire length of the Canadian border.

On one recent day, people from Yemen, Haiti, Burundi and Nigeria crossed illegally into Canada from upstate New York seeking refugee status. Had they tried to cross at a legal border crossing, they would have been sent back immediately. The net result is a continued flow of migrants on foot who don't use legal border crossings, testing a nation that historically welcomes refugees.

Canada's refugee system has become overloaded since the U.S. presidential election. If you apply to stay in Canada as a refugee, you are supposed to get a hearing within 60 days. That just isn't happening. There aren't enough lawyers to process a mounting backlog.

Now Canada is weighing its traditional welcome for refugees against the country's ability to absorb them.

MORE — The Other Side of Roxham Road: Canada Grapples With Border Refugees

In Montréal, I met Haitians who were sharing their stories from the migrant trail. Agathe St Preux was at the table. She lived in Miami for 12 years. This summer, as signs signaled the end of a temporary U.S. residency program for Haitians, St Preux crossed into Canada and made her way to Montréal.

"I breathe better, life is quiet here, and people are kind,” she said, her infectious smile lighting up the room.

Migration dynamics are different in Canada. The country has historically valued the skills and money that many migrants, especially well-educated professionals, bring in. Today Canada particularly values foreign high-tech workers and caregivers for the elderly — two groups with widely divergent income levels. Canada said recently that it plans to raise the numbers of migrants that it will accept between now and 2020.

Immigration lawyer David Berger is a member of the Canadian Council of Refugees, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for migrants. Berger is also Canada’s former ambassador to Israel and a former member of Canada’s Parliament.

"We've got a backlog today of 30,000 claims whereas about two years ago the backlog was 10 or 15,000." — Immigration lawyer David Berger, Canadian Council of Refugees

"We've got a backlog today of 30,000 claims whereas about two years ago the backlog was 10 or 15,000,” he explained. He said there aren't enough immigration judges, formally known in Canada as decision makers.

"We believe the government has to appoint more decision makers. One hundred and twenty decision makers is just not enough,” Berger continued. He added that Canada is a better country for the contributions refugees make. Berger represents or has represented people with advanced degrees in literature and finance, images that defy stereotypes harbored by some anti-immigrant forces.

The river of refugees is affecting public opinion. One national poll has suggested that four in 10 Canadians believe the country is taking in too many refugees.

The fate of refugees has also complicated the Canada-U.S. diplomatic relationship at times. When the Trump administration moved to ban travelers from seven majority Muslim nations and suspend the Syrian refugee program, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in a tweet that refugees are welcome in Canada.

Agathe St Preux in Montreal, Nov. 24 2017.
Credit Lorne Matalon / For VPR
Agathe St Preux in Montreal, Nov. 24, 2017. She lived in Miami for 12 years before crossing into Canada at Roxham Road in August. Her asylum case in Canada is pending.

Marjorie Villefranche heads La Maison D'Haiti (Haiti House) in Montréal, a resource center for refugees from many nations.

"I think that the tension is, how can a country like Canada, you know, admit that the United States is not a safe country? Politically it's very difficult to say that," Villefranche says.

Alessandra Santopadre is a migrant advocate at the Archdiocese of Montréal. The Archdiocese runs a shelter in a church rectory known as Le Pont, or "The Bridge." Santopadre acknowledged that rising numbers of Canadians aren't comfortable with Canada's refugee levels.

SLIDESHOW: See more photos from Lorne Matalon's reporting

"They start to be afraid because these people, they don't speak our language, they take our welfare or someone doesn't want to rent a house for a refugee,” Santopadre said. “There [are] all these problems that stress everybody. But I think that [being] different is not a problem. Different can be a richness."

The fate of refugees entering the country is a relatively recent conversation in Canada, which does a lot to at least help refugees get started. When a refugee arrives, before a final decision on whether they can or can’t stay permanently, applicants receive a monthly stipend, their children can enroll in school and like all Canadians, they are eligible to receive access to health care.  

"Undoubtedly there's been overcrowding. But the state has done as much as one might expect given the huge relative increase in the numbers of people coming." — Political scientist Philip Oxhorn, McGill University

Philip Oxhorn is a political scientist at McGill University. He told me that accommodating those refugees is demanding but manageable.

"Undoubtedly there's been overcrowding," Oxhorn says. "But the state has done as much as one might expect given the huge relative increase in the numbers of people coming."

Oxhorn says Canada is wrestling with those numbers. Some government workers have been deployed on weekends to work with refugees. But given the federal government’s plan to boost migrant numbers, Oxhorn expects the country will continue to value the place that refugees hold in Canada's multiethnic tapestry.

Lorne Matalon is the 2016-2017 Journalism Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and a Vermont resident. He is currently a contributor to CBC Radio and files regularly for Marketplace. Matalon has reported from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Panama and multiple locations in Mexico. Matalon's series on killings and land displacement driven by energy development in borderland Mexico was awarded a 2016 National Edward R Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting.

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