Run for the border

David Koelsch is accustomed to helping foreigners find asylum in the United States. But the immigration attorney says that many of his clients are heading for the Canadian border these days. He attributes the exodus in part to a new national program to track foreigners, and their fears that such monitoring will lead to deportation.

Last year, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a plan to keep closer tabs on foreign visitors to the United States as part of an anti-terrorism effort. The program, which took effect last month, requires designated visitors to register with local Immigration and Naturalization Services offices. So far, most foreigners required to register are from Muslim nations. However, Ashcroft intends to require visitors from all countries to register by 2005.

Koelsch works at the Detroit-based Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal aid and other assistance to those seeking asylum in the United States because of fears of persecution in their homelands.

Asylum-seekers are required to make formal application within a year of entering this country. Koelsch says some of his clients who failed to adhere to the one-year rule fear that they will be deported if they now register.

Instead of trying to make America their home, many are heading to Canada. In December, 148 immigrants turned to Freedom House for help in seeking asylum in Canada. Koelsch expects that number to double this month since the nonprofit helped 142 people headed for Canada in the first two weeks of January alone.

Koelsch has attended 10 of the INS registrations, which he says are “pretty innocuous.” INS officials asked Koelsch’s clients whether they had committed any crimes or associated with anyone who has. None of his clients were deported.

Koelsch does not disagree with tracking foreigners, but questions whether it will work.

“I think the INS knows that it’s a farce,” says Koelsch. “It’s not like they are taking a lie detector test. It’s just a way to keep tabs on people.”

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