Mayor appeals to Ottawa for help as city faces social services crunch
Doug Schmidt and Dave Battagello, Windsor StarPublished: Thursday, September 20, 2007
JUST ARRIVED: Concepcion Montiel and her daughter Perla, 2, arrived in Windsor this week looking for refugee status. They spent the past few years in Naples, Fla.
- Scott Webster, Windsor Star
With city shelters full and a surge of further refugee claimants expected to flood into Windsor, Mayor Eddie Francis is pleading for financial help from Ottawa.
"When there is a possibility of adding thousands to the local social assistance system as a result of refugee claimants crossing the border into Windsor, we will become overwhelmed and our current resources will not suffice," Francis said in a letter sent Wednesday to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Over the past three weeks, 45 families and 31 individuals -- approximately 200 people -- entered Canada at the Detroit River crossings and applied in Windsor for shelter and social assistance after filing refugee claims with the Canada Border Services Agency. Municipal agencies dealing with the sudden influx of mainly Mexican refugee applicants are renting hotel rooms and bracing for predicted thousands more to come.
"We don't have the means, ability or capacity to deal with this additional cost. We are not able to deal with this potential crisis locally," Francis wrote Harper.
"I don't believe that Windsor's residents and taxpayers should have to foot the bill for U.S. immigration policy," Francis told The Star. He was referring to the suspected source of the problem -- a recent crackdown on illegal immigrants in economically struggling regions of the U.S. South.
With the bulk of the latest arrivals being long-time Mexican illegals dislodged from their homes and workplaces in southwestern Florida, fingers are being pointed at unscrupulous outfits charging money and then directing desperate individuals and their families toward the Windsor border crossing.
"We are aware of these operations -- they have been advertising incorrect and false information," said Marina Wilson, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Wilson said Canadian immigration authorities have started contacting the Mexican and Haitian communities in Florida, as well as local media there, to get the word out that nothing has changed in Canadian refugee policy.
"The fact someone wants to come here for better economic opportunity or a better quality of life ... that's no basis for a successful refugee claim," said Immigration Refugee Board (IRB) spokesman Charles Hawkins.
The Canadian Council for Refugees, a non-profit organization which helps refugees, has also issued a warning about the scams and has asked the federal government to intervene.
But a group operating out of Naples, Fla., vowed to continue sending the so-called economic refugees to Windsor.
"They ask, 'Is Canada an option?' and I say, 'Yes, it is an option,'" Jacques Sinjuste of the Jerusalem Haitian Community Center said in a phone interview Wednesday. For a US$300 "donation" (most of those interviewed in Windsor claim they paid US$400), JHCC staff download forms off the Internet, help applicants fill them out and give directions on how to get to the Canadian border.
Sinjuste said he's simply providing a "referral" service.
"Most of the time when the people come, they say they've heard something (about Canada). I say that I've heard the same thing," he said.
Concepcion Montiel, who arrived Monday with her husband and two-year-old daughter Perla, said the family decided to move after watching a news report on the Spanish channel Univision, which said Mexicans needed only a valid passport or birth certificate to gain legal status in Canada.
Her husband worked in construction but hadn't been able to find employment recently because of the downturn in the economy. "He wasn't working because there weren't any jobs available," Montiel said through a translator.
Montiel said she paid $400 to come to Canada in a bus along with another two families, but that the money covered only the cost of applying for refugee status.
Jacquie Rumiel, director of programs for new Canadians at the YMCA, where refugee claimants are referred by Windsor's border guards, said the new people she's seeing are mostly Mexicans coming from Florida.
To be successful, refugee claimants must prove they are fleeing persecution at home, something most of the Mexicans arriving in Windsor would be hard-pressed to do. The IRB's Hawkins said there was only a 13 per cent acceptance rate of refugee claims filed by Mexican nationals during the first six months of the year, compared to an overall rate of 47 per cent.
But the average processing time for a refugee claim in Canada is currently 14.2 months, said Hawkins, a period during which the applicant is eligible for financial and other support. A failed claimant then also has the right to seek leave to appeal his or her rejection to federal court.
Despite the high number of failed applications cited by the IRB, Sinjuste said he gets calls to his Naples centre from "a lot of people" who've arrived in Windsor. "They say everything is OK -- they are doing good, going to schools, going to work," he said.
Sinjuste said he was visited last week by an official from the Canadian consulate general in Miami but couldn't remember if he was told to stop helping economic refugees go to Canada.
"I don't think they tell me that," he said. Federal bureaucrats confirmed the meeting but said they couldn't divulge details.
Others are warning about the types of activities engaged in by Sinjuste.
"The way he's misleading the most vulnerable is infuriating," said Pegg Roberts, executive director of Detroit's Freedom House, which runs a shelter and assists asylum seekers with their refugee claims. Sinjuste said he uses the Freedom House website to download refugee claim forms and advises the people he assists to seek help there.
"I do not help economic refugees," said Roberts, adding her non-profit organization assists the fleeing victims of torture and war crimes and has no affiliation with the JHCC.
"This is a problem the U.S. has allowed to create. It's really unfair for Canada to have to face this," said MP Joe Comartin (NDP -- Windsor-Tecumseh), his party's public safety and national security critic.
He predicting that, "with few exceptions," most of these "economic claimants" will eventually be sent back.