Mexicans pour into Canada from U.S
Agencies brace for thousands more; 'Give us a chance,' one begs

The Windsor Star | September 18, 2007
By Sarah Sacheli and Roberta Pennington

For 15 years, Manuel Ortega was living his version of the American Dream in Florida.

He had steady employment, sometimes working as a detailer for local car dealers, other times as a forklift driver. He earned enough to buy a van and rent a house for his wife and three children. His kids earned good grades in school and played with the family pet, a Shih Tzu named Chaparro (Shorty). They were safe and kept out of trouble. 

Ortega's dream, as he recounted it Tuesday standing outside a room at a Windsor motel, is now but a memory. He is one of an estimated 180 Mexicans from Florida who've rushed across the border and into Windsor to claim refugee status, fleeing a crackdown on illegal aliens in Florida.  

Local agencies that work with refugees have been told to brace for 4,000 to 8,000 refugee claimants.

Every single day this month, Mexican nationals who have been living illegally in Florida -- some for a dozen years or more -- are turning up at the Windsor-Detroit border seeking refugee status. The first group arrived at the YMCA on Aug. 28.

"They've been coming steadily ever since," said Jacquie Rumiel, director of programs for new Canadians at the YMCA.

The Ortegas left Naples, Fla. and say all they ask for in Canada is "a chance," said the father.

"Give us a chance to show what kind of people we are," the 39-year-old said. "We don't be afraid to work. We don't be afraid to start again. We need the chance, please, to do that."

Ortega said his fear of being deported to Mexico intensified within the past three months as immigration officials became more visible on the streets and the incidents of deportation of his acquaintances increased. 

When his American neighbour threatened to report him to authorities, he told his family to pack-up. They simply couldn't risk returning to Mexico, where he says he fears the powerful drug cartels, corrupt government and poor living conditions. 

"We don't have a future in Mexico," Ortega's 36-year-old wife said, noting her brother and his family also fled to Windsor fearing deportation. "We can't go back."

After driving his 1996 Grand Caravan for 24 hours without stopping -- except for gas and food -- the Ortegas arrived at the Windsor tunnel Sept. 11. When they told the border guard they were seeking refugee status, the Ortegas were given a list of social services organizations to contact for support.

The Y is one of the first stops for asylum seekers. The settlement program there directs new immigrants to legal help, housing and other programs.

It's hard to get a firm figure on the numbers who have arrived recently. While 120 have crossed the Y's threshold, the city's social services department, which is in daily contact with the Canada Border Services Agency, thinks the number is closer to 180.  But the Salvation Army thinks the real number could be into the hundreds.

The Salvation Army has put up 50 families -- some with five, seven and nine children each -- at four city hotels. Their bills, including meals, are being sent directly to the city's social services department. Another 30 single men are sleeping and getting hot meals at the Salvation Army Church Street shelter.

"We are being inundated with them," said Maj. Wilfred Harbin, Salvation Army administrator. Like others in the city, he has heard that up to 7,000 Mexicans seeking refugee status could be headed this way.

"What are we going to do with them? We're running out of beds."

In fact, said Harbin, all the beds are filled. A handful of men are sleeping on mats on the gymnasium floor of the building. "Maybe the military can help us," said Harbin, unable to think of where else he could get a shipment of cots in a hurry.

Salvation Army hostel supervisor Marlene Dufault said she believes the U.S. crackdown on illegal immigrants has led to the influx of Mexicans at our border. She said a church group in Naples has been charging the asylum seekers $400 a head, promising them there will be jobs awaiting them here. 

The Canadian Council for Refugees sent out an alert Tuesday in response to what it calls an "urgent" situation.

According to the national non-profit group that acts as an umbrella organization for agencies that help refugee claimants, there are "fraudulent advisers in the United States endangering asylum seekers" by telling them there is a "special Canadian program" for Mexicans.

The only accurate information the Mexicans are getting from these advisers is that they won't be turned away at the border.

Under the U.S.-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement, asylum seekers from the United States would normally be turned back. But those coming through the United States from Mexico are an exception because the United States would require those people to have a visa, but Canada does not.

Danny Yen, Canada Border Services Agency spokesman, explained that means the United States would not accept those people if turned back.

Legal Aid has begun footing the bill for the refugee claimants to get legal advice.

Immigration lawyer John Rokakis said seven Mexicans came through his door Tuesday with Legal Aid certificates paying for three hours of a lawyer's time. Monday he saw three others and had a steady trickle last week as well.

Few will have successful refugee claims, he predicted. "Of the ones I've seen there are maybe one or two that may have something," he said. One is a man who sought political asylum in the United States and was denied.

In the short term, the refugee claimants are the guests of city taxpayers. Some have U.S. bank accounts they can't access and others are destitute.

Teresa Piruzza, executive director of Ontario Works said, as of Monday, ten families and 18 individuals had applied for social assistance. "We're just starting to process them," Piruzza said of the applications.

Welfare currently pays up to $548 per month for individuals and $1,193 for families with two children under the age of 13.

As he recounted his story, Ortega repeatedly stressed his thanks to social services for helping his family.

"Social services, they help us too much," he said. "I want to say thanks and to Canadians 'thanks.'"