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Quests for Canada carry US cost

Asylum-seekers drawn to Canada often wait in US. Lacking visas, they face jail. Move by Canada may help

By Minh T. VoSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 1998


Every year, thousands of people cross the US border, eager to start new lives.

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But a number of these people are not trying to get into the world's largest melting pot of immigrants; they are trying to leave, setting their sights on Canada.

They often employ a strategy, however, that lands them in prolonged US detention at taxpayer expense - and that has at times ruffled US-Canada relations. An expected move by Canada in the coming weeks may make it easier for asylum-seekers to get in.

Canada has a reputation for generosity, having accepted 44 percent of its applicants for asylum in 1997. Its southern neighbor looked favorably upon just 22 percent of its applicants.

And unlike the United States, Canada allows asylum-seekers access to welfare, jobs, medical benefits, and government-sponsored lawyers.

About half of the 24,000 people who applied for asylum in Canada last year transited through the US, into which there are many more flights from their countries of origin. This has caused consternation on both sides of the border.

The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has been detaining some of these "transitors" who arrive in the US from other countries without visas, fearing such individuals might claim to be heading to Canada only to stay in the US and become undocumented illegal aliens.

The Rev. John Long, director of Vive, an organization in Buffalo, N.Y., that assists Canada-bound asylum-seekers, says it is absurd that the INS is detaining noncriminals who do not want to be in the US. Many of them, he says, escaped torture in their native countries only to land in jail in New York.

INS spokesman Andrew Lluberes responds, "You do not have the right to be in the United States illegally in order to pursue an asylum application with a third country."

Meanwhile, some Canadians see their welfare system stretched by asylum-seekers who had a chance to apply in another haven. They point out that the United States may have a lower acceptance rate but has more applicants and therefore grants asylum status to twice the number of people.

In fiscal year 1997, more than 22,000 people got positive reviews in the US. The Canadian figure was about 10,000.

"The policy of the government of Canada is that if people are in need of protection, they should seek protection whenever they arrive in a country that can extend protection," says one Canadian immigration official. If they arrive in the US first, they should pursue their claim there, he says.

"Once people are in Canada, we have no choice but to give them access to our system," he adds.

Finding access to the system might become easier in the coming weeks when guidelines are issued to make an entry application for asylum-seekers a one-step process along its entire border.

For many aiming for Canada, the problem is getting in to make a case for staying. Often, people come to the US illegally and then try to head north.

In order to come to the US legally, an individual must have either a visa or refugee status arranged by the United Nations or an embassy with an INS program, explains Lynne Partington, the executive director of Freedom House, a shelter in Detroit that helps people apply for asylum across the border. "Most people do not have the luxury of doing that. The embassies are being watched, or there's no embassy... So they come with false visas or no visas," she says.