Run for the border

Jul 3, 2002 at 12:00 am

Inside Freedom House on Detroit’s southwest side, three Tibetans fold newsletters in a cramped, humid office. Across the hall, an attorney and his staff process paperwork for dozens of immigrants. Children frolic in the hallway as phones ring and a doorbell buzzes.

The brick building, equipped to house 38 guests, is jammed well beyond capacity. On this hot summer day, immigrants from around the world are packed in the former convent, adjacent to St. Anne’s Church.

Gloria Rivera is used to the chaotic pace of Freedom House, which for about two decades has been providing food, shelter and other services to torture victims from oppressive regimes and war-torn lands who seek asylum in the United States and Canada. But the executive director says that the influx in recent months has been more than she and her staff can handle. Rivera attributes it to pending immigration policy changes in Canada and the United States. Policies are being tightened, effectively decreasing the number of people who can seek asylum in the two nations. And the burden of these changes falls on groups such as Freedom House.

“The phone is ringing constantly. People are at the door constantly,” says Rivera. “It’s a crisis.”

Canada bound

For the past decade the Canadian government has been coaxing the United States to revise what is commonly called the “safe third country agreement.” The Canadians want to require immigrants to seek asylum (or refugee status, as it is called in Canada) from the country in which they first arrive. The revision, which the U.S. government finally agreed to last week, is expected to dramatically reduce the number of asylum seekers in Canada — and increase the number in the United States.

Of the 44,000 people who sought asylum in Canada last year, more than 30 percent traveled via the United States, according to a Citizenship and Immigration Canada official in Ottawa. Far fewer immigrants travel to the United States via Canada since there are more international flights to the United States.

Months ago, before Canada and the United States signed a draft policy on June 28, the nations indicated the changes would likely go into effect before summer’s end. Then, as of last week, Canadian and U.S. leaders now say it will likely be during the fall.

In a race to beat the clock, immigrants who landed in the United States and hoped to seek asylum in Canada are running for the border. Those who need shelter until they can get into Canada or have their legal papers completed have been showing up at Freedom House.

When Rivera arrived to work one morning last week, 15 Colombians were already at Freedom House, seeking help getting into Canada.

“It was crazy,” says Rivera. “They came with their luggage, and we had nowhere to put them.”

David Koelsch, Freedom House staff attorney, called the Canadian border officials to see whether they had time to process paperwork for the Colombian group. Koelsch says that the border has been so busy in recent months — because of tight security since the Sept. 11 attacks and other new immigration laws — that officials are far behind on paperwork for asylum seekers, which takes about 30 minutes per person. Normally, Koelsch and two paralegals help immigrants complete initial paperwork, which includes a family history and photos, before sending them to the border. But they are also running behind.

Last year, Freedom House assisted 462 immigrants seeking asylum in Canada, compared with 280 so far this year, says Koelsch. He expects that the number of immigrants seeking his help to enter Canada will far surpass last year’s figures.

Koelsch, who also has 180 U.S. asylum applicants to assist, scrambles to keep up.

Canadian border officials told Koelsch to send the Colombians. But when the group arrived at the border, the officials didn’t have time to process them and told them to come back about 10 days later.

Fortunately, they had money for a hotel. Most immigrants have few resources, says Rivera, and many turn to Freedom House.

Closing the door

Immigrants seek asylum in Canada for different reasons. The Tibetans at Freedom House are headed to Toronto because it has a well-established Tibetan community. Others go to Canada because it processes asylum applications more quickly than the United States. The U.S. bureaucracy takes two to three years, compared with 14-18 months in Canada, according to Koelsch.

Another reason for seeking asylum in Canada has been its lenient immigration policies — that is, until recently. In addition to drafting the safe third country agreement with the States, Canada overhauled immigration laws, which went into effect last week. Koelsch calls them “the most sweeping changes in immigration law in 40 years.”

Previously, immigrants who were denied asylum were instructed to leave the country for 90 days, return and reapply.

“Most win on a second chance,” says Koelsch. “As of Friday, that second chance is gone.”

On June 28, Canada did away with this policy.

Some observers attribute Canada’s immigration overhaul to post-Sept. 11 concerns and a new wariness of immigrants in general.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, worries that Canada is going the way of the United States and other countries, which have tougher policies on immigration. Yet she doubts that the strict laws will prevent people from crossing the border; they will just find illegal means to do it.

“If they want to cross the border, they will find a way,” says Dench.

Despite Canada’s new stricter immigration laws, a rush of asylum seekers are heading to points along the border before the safe third country agreement goes into effect.

“We’ve had an incredible rush of people to the border since May,” says Chris Owens, executive director of Vive, a refugee shelter in Buffalo, N.Y. “People are just trying to find any border crossing they can.”

Vive’s guest capacity is 118, but recently its population has swelled to nearly 300 residents.

“Another 100 people are placed in churches,” Owens says.

Since May, about 50 immigrants seeking asylum have been crossing the border into Canada from Buffalo each day, says Owens. Normally, it is about 10 to 15 a day.

The border patrol in the Canadian city of Fort Erie, Ontario, which sits adjacent to Buffalo, is overwhelmed, says Dench.

“They are not directing people back to the United States,” she adds. “They had them in waiting rooms for three or four days.”

Citizenship and Immigration Canada in Ottawa would not comment on operations in Fort Erie or Windsor.

Dench says that some immigrants will have to be directed back to the United States, which is a scary prospect. In some cases, immigrants without proper paperwork can be detained and jailed.

Another change in Canadian immigration law is that the border patrol has been given the discretion to detain people, similar to the way the United States can.

Those who make it back to the United States often stay weeks at places like Vive and Freedom House until the border officials can handle their paperwork. It isn’t easy, given the limited resources of the immigrant support groups. But Rivera is determined to do what she can to help.

“It may mean people taking them into their homes,” she says. “Sending them to the street is the last thing I’m going to do.”

Freedom House is at 2630 W. Lafayette, Detroit; call 313-964-4320 for more information. Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected]