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Canada offers illegal immigrants no easy asylum

Illegal immigrants hear that they will be welcomed. Instead, they may be deported.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

[Skip O'Rourke | Times]
Norberto Jimenez, right, and Cruz Salucio of 107.9-FM in Immokalee have been trying to stop information that is spreading among farm workers about moving to Canada to avoid deportation.

NAPLES -- After years of waiting, Daniel Gaspar was finally hearing what he thought impossible.

The Guatemalan man could get asylum. Not here in the United States, but in Canada.

Sitting in a crowded Bonita Springs church, Gaspar listened as a man explained how he had helped Haitians make the move, and how he also could help Hispanics, like Gaspar.

Frustrated by dead ends with his case and fearful of stepped-up immigration raids, Gaspar packed his bags.

"I've been here so many years, if they offer me hope, I'm willing to sell everything here to start new," he told friends.

Gaspar, 30, is one of hundreds of illegal immigrants, mostly Mexicans from southwest Florida, who have streamed into Canada the past several weeks. Many, like Gaspar, were sent by Jacques Sinjuste, general director of the Jerusalem Haitian Community Center Inc. of Naples.

The allure is great: Sinjuste promises they'll find legal work, free from worry about immigration raids. They'll also get help with rent and living expenses until they're on their feet.

Mexican immigrants who made the trip in the past month have called back to friends and family with good news. It's all true, they say. Canadians put them up at the Ramada Inn, helped them find a place to live, even brought them breakfast.

What they don't know is their good fortune is temporary -- maybe a year or so. Canadian officials say some immigrants do get living assistance and a work permit, but only because their refugee applications are pending. Some get deported immediately.

Chances of a permanent stay are slim, they said.

Gaspar, who lived in the United States for 16 years after fleeing war-torn Guatemala, abandoned his lawn care business, bought a $287 plane ticket to Vermont and paid the Haitian man $400 for his paperwork.

Within a week of crossing into Canada in a taxi, Gaspar was deported to Guatemala.

Canadian officials told him they were puzzled by his paperwork, he said.

"They are not sure what is the law," Gaspar said of the Haitian center from his family's home in Guatemala. "They should tell people the truth. I know they are making a lot of money."

Long-term impact

The recent influx has sparked concern in Canada, where officials worry that U.S. immigration woes could start spilling across the border.

If the rumor spreads unfettered, Canada could be overwhelmed, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

"What the people in Canada are worried about is the long-term impact," she said.

Even 1 percent of 12-million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States would make a huge impact, she said.

Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been trying to warn immigrants.

"Don't believe it and don't pay hundreds of dollars," Benitez tells the listeners of the coalition's low-wattage radio station.

He says immigrants walk into the coalition's office off Main Street looking for paperwork to apply for Canadian refugee status and citizenship.

Every few years a new scam turns up, he said. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable now, he added, because of the failed immigration reform bill and stepped up enforcement.

In August, the Collier County Sheriff's Office trained 20 deputies to enforce immigration law.

But Benitez is one of the few voices competing against a wave of misinformation.

Now it's not just the Haitian center offering help to get to Canada. Others around Florida promise the same.

Down Main Street in Immokalee, tucked into a law office for workers' compensation, Gloria Hernandez works as a paralegal.

She praised the program in the local Spanish-language weekly Gaceta Tropical. She saw it with her own eyes, she said in the mid September edition.

Hernandez, who heads the newly formed Immigrants United for a Free Immokalee, decided to make the trip because many workers were asking questions about paperwork filled out by the Haitian center.

She didn't know what to tell them.

So she followed two trucks and a van full of immigrants headed to Canada with paperwork and a map provided by the Haitian center. She watched them cross the border, she said.

Hernandez said she talked to a Canadian border crossing guard who told her that Canada was admitting the immigrants as refugees. So she came back and started holding community meetings in Immokalee to spread the word.

Lawyers and other community activists around west-central Florida have been calling her for more information about the program, she said.

When told by a St. Petersburg Times reporter what Canadian officials had to say, she was alarmed.

"I need to know so I can tell workers that," she said. "I don't want to get them deported."

To worker Miguel Orea, Canada was still the promised land.

If immigrants get deported after a year of living and working legally in Canada, that's still better than what they find in Florida, he said.

"There's no work here," Orea, 22, said recently, standing outside Radio Road Plaza in Naples.

He and three other men, all in soiled shirts, work in construction, where jobs have all but dried up, they said.

Orea said his friends paid the Haitian center $400 each for paperwork for themselves and their three children. They left last month.

Overwhelmed Ontario

Complaints have led the Collier County Sheriff's Office to launch an investigation into Sinjuste and the Haitian center.

Sinjuste, a Haitian immigrant who founded the nonprofit in 2000, did not return calls.

However, earlier this month he told the New York Times he did not encourage immigrants to seek asylum in Canada. He merely helped them fill out forms, describing the $400 they paid as a "donation."

Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees said she has been tracking complaints regarding the Haitian center for more than a year.

"They had on their Web site that we had an 'economic refugee program,'" she said. The center took that down after complaints, she added.

Eddie Francis, mayor of Windsor, Ontario, said Sinjuste flew up to meet with him Friday.

The two men spoke about how the influx of 300-plus immigrants has overwhelmed the city of 220,000.

Men were put up in Salvation Army shelters. Families were placed in hotels until the city could make other arrangements.

They receive help until their case is heard. Because of a backlog, that can take more than a year, Francis said.

"You need to communicate with people that their possibilities of settling here are low," Francis said he told Sinjuste. "He said he doesn't want to hurt anyone or cause problems and that he's going to go down there and tell people it's not a good situation."

Francis has asked Canada's federal authorities for financial assistance, as well as help to speed up the refugee hearings.

Windsor and its province have spent more than $300,000 on lodging and other assistance, "a significant drain," he said.

"That's why the federal government needs to play a role," he said. "If they choose not to act immediately, there is going to be the wrong message to send out and there's going to be more of this taking place in more cities across the country."

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at or (813) 661-2441.


FAST FACTS: Canadian immigration policy
  • Immigrants trying to obtain refugee status in Canada must show a "well-founded fear of being persecuted" for reasons connected to their race, nationality, religion, political opinion or certain social group membership. Immigrants from certain countries also can be protected from return to their home country if they can show risk of torture, death or cruel punishment.
  • In 2006, 28 percent of Mexican immigrants who applied for Canadian refugee status received it, compared to 53 percent of Haitians who applied and 47 percent for all groups.
  • For the first half of 2007, the number for Mexican refugee applicants admitted was just 13 percent.
  • Immigrants from eight countries, including Haiti, are not sent back to their countries if they are denied because of the turmoil there. Mexico is not on that list.
  • The current lag time between the date a refugee application is accepted until a decision is made by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada is 14.2 months.

Source: Stephane Malepart, spokesman for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.


[Last modified September 30, 2007, 01:33:01]

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