Northern Closure

The U.S.-Canada 'Smart Borders' Accord Sells Refugees Down the River

But advocates regard this policy as needlessly heartless and unrealistic—not to mention in violation of principles of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These are refugees, after all, who have experienced violence, persecution, possibly even torture. Their lives have been in total upheaval. Isn't it logical that a French-speaking Rwandan, for instance, would prefer Québec to New Jersey? What is more, typically when people apply for asylum in both countries, it's because the system forces them to. Refugees on their way to Canada who are nabbed by the INS in America can stave off deportation—though not always detention—only by applying for asylum here. That may not have been their intention, but their way to Canada was blocked.

Both governments say they are dealing with those cultural issues by allowing exceptions for family members, unaccompanied minors, and others. But advocates respond that these are ill defined and difficult to prove. Wendy Young of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children notes, for instance, that the provision for relatives is "tied to a Western conception of nuclear family." African women who lose their husbands and end up as single heads of households often turn to the husband's brother for financial and emotional support—but in-laws are not authorized by the agreement.

Meanwhile, if someone does claim to have, say, a sibling in Canada, what will happen to her while the CIC goes through the process of confirming that? And how will they do it? "Refugees often don't have documents establishing their own identity," says Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "And even if they do have them, how do you prove that somebody is your sister? Nobody carries around a family tree certified by some authority."

Differences in immigration law and policy between the U.S. and Canada also account for some people's passion to go north. Asylum applicants in the U.S., for example, are refused any authorization to work for a minimum of five months, while those in Canada are permitted to seek jobs right away. Canada's eastern provinces also provide free legal representation to refugees, unlike the U.S. Most important, perhaps, while both countries define refugees as people unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality because of a "well-founded fear of persecution" on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, Canada in some instances grants a little more benefit of the doubt.

Immigration attorneys in the U.S. tell countless stories of asylum seekers who had clearly been abused but were denied status because the reason they suffered violence—or the people who attacked them—did not fall into one of the official categories. Colombians who get caught in the crossfire between guerrillas and paramilitaries, for instance, don't fare well in the U.S., which often regards them as being persecuted only out of bad luck. Canada has its share of seemingly arbitrary rulings, too, advocates say, but unlike the U.S., says Dench, in Canada "we don't bend over backwards" to try to prove that a claimant experienced persecution for some reason the law doesn't recognize.

The Sudanese mom in the front seat of Jon Croom's Crown Victoria shudders when asked what she'd do if she were turned back at the Peace Bridge and told she'd have to ask for asylum in America. "It's not possible" is all she will say.

Were she returned, she'd have to make her request to the already overburdened INS, where it takes as much as two years for an asylum case to be resolved—or more if the decision is appealed. Nonetheless, the Bush administration is poised to clinch an agreement with Canada that is likely to throw thousands of new cases into the logjam. They're trying to "fix a system that ain't broke," says Bill Frelick, director of Amnesty International-USA's Refugee Program, and in doing so, are "creating new sets of problems."

At Vive, Owens and his staff are bracing for the day word gets out to refugees that the agreement is going forward: In May and June, they were overwhelmed by 1500 refugees coming in through Buffalo, trying to beat new restrictions in Canadian immigration law that went into effect on June 28. Owens expects an even bigger onslaught as the safe-third-country accord moves inexorably forward.

While Owens wants to see those who prefer Canada to be admitted up north, he has dreamy visions of what could happen with those who are rejected: "We should welcome them to settle in Buffalo," he suggests, sitting in his office in the ramshackle neighborhood where there's not a fresh vegetable or newspaper on sale for miles. "The people who come through here—engineers, physicians, teachers—are a tremendous resource. They have talent and optimism and want to work hard. We need that energy in Buffalo."

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