Canada puts out the welcome mat for refugees from the US

A Vancouver support center has seen the number of refugees seeking asylum increase since the election of President Trump. Immigrants say it's worth risking a border crossing to have the opportunity for a more stable life. 

Doug Struck
Jesus Soriano, with Zafiro (l.), and Yaretzy, left California to keep his family together and avoid deportation.

The moment is seared by heartache in Jesus Soriano. His daughter Zafiro had just run 15 times around the track to raise money for her school in Redlands, Calif., and was skipping excitedly toward center field to pick up her first-prize award. A man approached.

“You should get out of the country,” the man snarled at her, Mr. Soriano recalls. “Trump will fix this.”

The father leaped in defense of his bright-eyed girl with shimmering black hair that had never been cut since she was born – an American citizen – in California seven years earlier. More words followed; there was pushing. Zafiro began crying. They left without the prize.

In May, Mr. Soriano and his two children and his pregnant wife walked from the United States into Canada to request refugee asylum. 

“I feared that they would send me back to Mexico, and take away our kids,” says Soriano, who had worked illegally in the US since 2005. He had left Mexico after he was kidnapped for ransom from his small business. But there was little solace in the US. Coworkers at a print shop were swept up in a raid and deported on a day Soriano was off work. His boss told him not to come back. “In the US, I was treated as a criminal.”

A Canadian welcome 

In a small, welcoming office in Vancouver, the Reyes family listened to Soriano’s story and nodded. They knew it well. They, too, had arrived at this building, the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, from the United States.

Here, they passed inlaid stones offering welcome in 15 languages. Inside they found a warren of social services agencies and nonprofit groups that would help them live in Canada while their cases worked through the system.

There were 18 dorm rooms where refugees can shelter for a while. A health clinic for their families. Trauma counseling, translators, youth programs, English classes, a day-care program. Even a program to introduce Royal Canadian Mounted Police as agents of help, not fear. The center is unique in the world for providing refugees the services they need without sending them scurrying from one government office to another, says Chris Friesen, director of settlement services. 

Since the election of President Trump, he says, the center has seen a sharp uptick in cases coming across the US border. An average of about 100 a month are coming from the US to Vancouver, he says; last year it was about 60 a month and in 2013 it was about 31 a month. They are from all over: Iraqis and Kurds and Turks and Iranians, often in the US on tourist or student visas, who walk across the undefended border into Canada.

And there are Latin Americans, many of whom have lived quiet lives in the United States for years before concluding the country really does not want huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

“These are families concerned about staying in the United States as they hear more talk about deportation and walls,” says Mr. Friesen.

It’s not just talk. Aaron Reyes was walking home from his job as a car salesman in Tacoma, Wash., when he was stopped by police and held as an illegal alien. He had been in the US since 2001, working, paying taxes, and raising a family, but with no legal papers.

He got out on bail of $5,000 before immigration officers arrived. But he was on their list. And he started noticing a change in tone of people he knew well.

“When Donald Trump first starting running for president and said Mexicans are rapists, people I knew for years were starting to make comments that Mexicans ought to go back to their country. I said, ‘Stop. You know I’m Mexican?’ They said, ‘Oh, we meant other Mexicans.’ But it still hurt.”

His wife, Alma, noticed it, too. “In the stores, they stopped talking to us. You’d go to the Safeway, and they were real polite to others, but they looked at us and said nothing. And then as soon as Trump won, it all started to come out. It’s like they could say anything now. There was a lot of bullying at school – not just us, but black kids and Muslim kids. I had thought we were past that.”

But what really worried the Reyeses was that their children, Mac, age 7, and Arvin, 18 months, were born in the United States. Their extended families all had left Mexico because of the violence and gangs, and scattered through the US. “I would never take my children back to a place that is so dangerous,” says Alma. Just as frightening to her, she says, was the possibility that she or her husband might be detained at work or while they were away from their children.

“We have heard when the parents don’t have documentation, you can get deported and the kids end up getting sent to foster care. Nobody has a right to take away our children, and I was not going to let that happen,” she says.

Sprinting across the border 

Aaron went first, walking through the Peace Arch Park on the northwest tip of Washington, where it is relatively easy to circumvent border officers. Alma and the two kids followed, but a US border patrol saw her and gave chase on foot. With Arvin in a snuggly on her chest and Mac sprinting beside her, Alma outran the officer to reach the Canadian side.

“When the officer came after me, I just thought, ‘I’ll have to go back to Mexico.’ I was so afraid of that, so afraid of being sent to Mexico, I just ran and ran.”

Aaron was waiting for her.

Doug Struck
VANCOUVER, B.C., AUG. 21: Aaron and Alma Reyes with their children, Mac and Arvin, came across the border after living in Tacoma, Wash., for 16 years, fearing deportation.

There is no guarantee either family ultimately will be allowed to stay in Canada. According to Friesen, the acceptance rate is 55 percent. But refusals can be appealed, and the process can take nearly two years. In the meantime, refugee applicants are allowed to work, get a basic health insurance card, and get assistance for housing and food.

“I am about to receive a work permit that I never got in the United States,” says Soriano, at the Vancouver center. “My family is happy because we no longer feel like a target.”

“It’s not necessarily easier” to make a successful claim as a refugee in Canada than the US, says Frank Cohn, executive director of VAST, the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, a nongovermental organization at the center. “But if they make a claim in the US, they can be locked up in a detention center for a couple of years. Those detention centers are not dissimilar to prisons.”

The risks are understood 

Undocumented families in the US have always lived with the possibility of deportation, say Mr. Cohn, who has dual US-Canadian citizenship. But “post-election, they are feeling a cultural shift as people of color, with different accents, and different status. If there are an accumulation of incidents, then they make that decision to leave.”

Soriano and the Reyeses understand the risk. Giving up homes and jobs and now starting over while they live in squeezed shelters is not easy. But they say it is their best chance to have a stable life.

“I had spent so many years in the US that I felt American,” Aaron Reyes says. “It was hard to leave. But when we reached that Canadian officer at the border, he said ‘Welcome to Canada.’ I started crying,” he says.

“In all the years in America I had never heard anyone say ‘Welcome.’ ”  

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