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Is Canada a Viable Option?

With so much uncertainty surrounding the Trump Administration’s stance on immigration, those who have fled threats in their hometowns in Central America and the Caribbean have increasingly looked northward to Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted in 2017, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” Trudeau took office in 2015 and immediately made a priority of accepting refugees from Syria, at one point tweeting a photo of him with a refugee child with the hashtag #WelcomeToCanada.

Historically, Canada has a different metaphorical relationship to immigrants than the United States. While America prides itself on being a melting pot, a place where people from many cultures and nations merge their identities in an American one, Canada has promoted itself as a mosaic, where original identities are maintained and fit together in a transparently multicultural country. It’s an open question how much either country lives up to these ideals, but Canada’s rhetoric of respect for foreign nationals has prompted many undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to take their chances on it.

Those who enter Canada not at an airport but at an unregulated point find a relatively welcoming reception. If they claim refugee status, they are housed by social services, receive access to health care and job-related training, and in some cases, a degree of financial assistance while their asylum claims are evaluated. If their claims are denied, asylum-seekers will be returned not to the United States but their country of origin. 

Because of the growing influx of immigrants claiming refugees status, Canada’s immigration courts face backlogs, so much so that Trudeau’s government is trying to temper its message. In an effort to discourage unauthorized border crossings, Trudeau announced last August that there is no advantage to applying for asylum from inside Canada, and that “our rules, our principles and our laws apply to everyone.” To help staunch the flow of asylum seekers, he sent Member of Parliament Pablo Rodriguez to California a number of times last year to paint a less promising picture of the undocumented immigrant’s experience in Canada. 

“You can't just come to Canada and cross the border and stay there the rest of your life," Rodriguez said. "We want to avoid a humanitarian crisis along the border…. We want to have an honest, transparent conversation. Canada is a very open country but there are rules.”

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the message didn’t quite land as hoped:

“If you are facing certain death in your country … Canada seems like a very excellent option,” said George W. Abbes, an immigration attorney.

Last summer’s influx of Haitian nationals from the U.S. caused Canadian officials to expect a similar spike in El Salvadorans now that the Trump Administration has cancelled their TPS status. Now, Canada’s federal government is trying to decide how to remain true its historic commitment to immigration in a way that doesn’t provoke the nationalism that has become part of the European and American political discourse. As writer Dan Bilefsky explains in The New York Times“The Daily” podcast, “This is a pre-emptive or preventative move to try to avoid a backlash to keep the multi-ethnic, multicultural, welcoming Canadian model.”

Those who are considering a Canadian border crossing should first consult an immigration attorney to consider options in the U.S. and to get a more complete understanding of what they would face. The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement requires refugee claimants “to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in, unless the qualify of an exception to the Agreement.” An immigration attorney can also help you understand the exceptions and determine if they apply to you. Secondhand information and anecdotal evidence can lead to unfortunate results.


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