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False Promises, Real Fears: Why People Flee the U.S. for Canada

Thousands of asylum seekers entered Canada from the U.S. this year based both on real concerns about deportation and false reports of an easy asylum process in Canada. We examine the role of information and misinformation in decisions to cross the U.S.-Canada border.

Written by Jillian Kestler-D’Amours Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A long line of asylum seekers wait to cross the Canada-U.S. border near Champlain, New York, on August 6, 2017. AFP PHOTO/Geoff Robins

MONTREAL, Canada  Lydie had always wanted to live in Canada. But recently, crossing the U.S.-Canada border had become a matter of urgency.

Originally from Petion-Ville, a commune in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the 36-year-old crossed into southern Quebec with her husband and 7-year-old son last month.

“I knew I was going to be deported [from the U.S.],” said Lydie, who didn’t give Refugees Deeply her last name for fear it would impact her pending asylum claim.

Lydie fled Haiti in 2008 after receiving death threats – she said she narrowly avoided being kidnapped. She lived in Venezuela and then Brazil, before deciding to go to the U.S. The journey took 17 days, much of it on foot, and the family “went from country to country” in harsh and dangerous conditions, she said.

After entering the U.S. last year and spending a brief period in detention, they moved to Orlando, Florida. But their time in America was short-lived.

Lydie was subject to immigration parole proceedings and she feared she would be deported to Haiti at her next hearing, which was set for mid-October.

So less than a year after they arrived in the U.S., they booked flights to Plattsburgh, in upstate New York, taking only what they could fit into a single suitcase. They paid $70 for a taxi to the border and then walked into Canada on August 4.

“I came to Canada to search for help. I have nothing. I don’t have a cent, I don’t have a home, I have nowhere to go,” Lydie said.

Information – and misinformation – is critical for thousands of people like Lydie who left the U.S. and entered Canada this year. Canadian police say they intercepted more than 5,500 people who crossed into Quebec illegally in August.

The Trump administration had mired Haitians in uncertainty by suggesting that the U.S. could end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians when it expires in January 2018. About 60,000 Haitians are covered under the TPS program, which was enacted after the devastating earthquake in 2010 and allowed Haitians to remain and work in the U.S. legally.

Haitians “need to start thinking about returning,” said then-chief of homeland security John Kelly in May.

Such statements sent fear through the Haitian community, said Emmanuel Depas, a New York immigration lawyer.

At the same time, misinformation about Canada’s immigration system – including a message circulated on WhatsApp that reportedly said Canada was opening its doors to asylum seekers – also pushed many families to leave the U.S., according to Depas.

They were bolstered by a statement made by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau early this year. “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength,” Trudeau tweeted on January 28, shortly after the U.S. government imposed a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“The Haitian community was immediately touched by that statement,” said Frantz Andre of the Non-Status Action Committee, a Montreal-based community group that supports new arrivals.

Trudeau has since tried to reconcile the idea that Canada is welcoming to refugees and asylum seekers with his government’s attempts to stem the wave of irregular arrivals at the border. He said that they “are not two separate things.”

When foreign nationals such as Lydie cross into Canada without a permit or visa, they are taken into the custody of Canada’s federal police agency. They are then transferred to a Canada Border Services Agency official who verifies their identity.

After an interview with an immigration official to determine whether they can make an asylum claim, individuals are generally released pending their first hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), an independent body that deals with asylum and refugee claims.

Many have found the process of gaining asylum much harder than expected. Between January and March of this year, the IRB rejected 63 percent of finalized refugee protection claims from Haiti, according to figures provided by the board. The rejection rate for Haitian refugee claimants was nearly 48 percent in 2016, and 56 percent in 2015.

“It’s complicated. It’s totally different from what [Trudeau] said before,” said Lydie’s husband, Colvens. “It’s almost like we got caught in a trap.”

“I think the government could have warned people much earlier,” Andre said, adding that families such as Lydie’s now “find themselves in a lot of anguish, a lot of anxiety, and they aren’t always informed.”

The Canadian government has since launched an information campaign in the U.S. to dissuade people from crossing the border.

Through its consulates in the U.S., the Canadian government is using social media to spread accurate information about its immigration system, said Nancy Chan, a communications adviser at the government ministry Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Haitian-born Canadian M.P. Emmanuel Dubourg went to Miami in late August to speak with local media and leaders in the large Haitian community there. The government also sent a Spanish-speaking M.P. to Los Angeles to discourage possible asylum seekers from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador from heading to Canada.

Lody Jean, president of the Haitian Lawyers Association based in Miami, told Refugees Deeply that despite Ottawa’s efforts, the minister’s message did not necessarily trickle down to members of the community.

“The way that Haitians in our area, South Florida, get their information is generally by radio … I think [going on] multiple radio outlets would help,” she said.

Even with the correct information, Jean said she believed many Haitians would rather take their chances in Canada than risk staying in the U.S. under the current political climate.

“They [have] just a general fear that their [immigration status] cases, if they are in court, won’t be granted, or they just feel that the environment is not conducive for them to stay here,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lydie and her family have moved into a one-bedroom apartment while their claim is processed. They are frustrated but resolute.

“We won’t let ourselves get discouraged,” she said. “We have faith.”

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