MONTREAL-Cracking down on refugee advocates is unlikely to stop an influx of refugees at the Canadian border, says an American immigration consultant who was arrested last month at the Quebec-New York state border and charged with human smuggling.
Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, a 65-year-old refugee advocate from Chester, Pa., says perhaps some humanitarian organizations who previously thought they could operate without fear of legal reprisal will think twice before helping people who are seeking asylum in Canada.
But with the current immigration situation in the United States, people will continue making a bee line for the Canadian border, with or without the help of intermediaries.
"I can't believe that people are not going to approach the border, they'll just pay other people to get up there," said Hinshaw-Thomas in an interview last week, between seeing clients at her offices in Lancaster, Pa.
"It's not going to stop it, but it's going to stop an orderly process."
There has been a recent influx of Mexican and Haitian refugees in Windsor, Ont., from the United States where the Immigration and Naturalization Service are in the midst of a clampdown on illegal immigrants.
"The deportations in the United States of Haitians as well as other people have gone up tremendously and people are living in great fear," Hinshaw-Thomas said.
Hinshaw-Thomas, who was arrested on Sept. 26 in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que. as she helped 12 Haitian nationals cross the border, says a series of miscommunications on both sides led to her arrest. In 19 previous trips by people from her organization, no one had ever been arrested or stopped.
Her supporters say Canada is targeting a Good Samaritan, using a provision under Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act designed to stop criminal organizations involved in people smuggling.
Her lawyers are confident they can beat the charges, but there is an underlying issue.
"People (humanitarian workers) are very afraid right now and they all think they could be next," said one of Hinshaw-Thomas's Montreal-based lawyers, Mitchell Goldberg. "We don't think it's enough to drop the charges .... we are calling for guidelines to be issued so this never happens again."
Hinshaw-Thomas says on one of her trips she was shown the law and her entire understanding of Sec. 117 was that humanitarian workers are allowed to assist the asylum seekers as long as they don't profit from it.
"In retrospect, the Canadian law is much more encompassing," said Hinshaw-Thomas. "I didn't have to earn a penny or lose a penny for me to be charged. I certainly did not understand it. It was never my intention to violate Canadian law."
The legislation has severe penalties of a maximum of a $1 million fine and/or life in prison.
Hinshaw-Thomas is believed to be the first human rights worker to be charged under the act and is due back in court in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu on Nov. 30.
The good-natured grandmother of four admits she's a little daunted by her situation.
"It is a bit scary, I don't relish life imprisonment," she said.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says there is a grassroots movement moving towards putting pressure on the government.
"I've seen people are more outraged and they are trying to find ways to confront the government on this and to challenge the government on the prosecution of people who are helping refugees on a humanitarian basis," Dench said.
"I think most people interpret it as (the government) wanting to send a message. It creates a very confrontational position."
Erik Paradis, a Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson, said profit has nothing to do with the arrest.
"The person that was charged was very well aware of the consequence of such activities, she had been notified previously so this why we took this stance and pressed charges," Paradis said.
Paradis said officers applied the law as it is laid out. As a safeguard that humanitarian workers aren't abused, there is a provision that states the attorney general's consent must be included on any warrant.
"Its up to the court to determine if our officers applied the act correctly," Paradis said. "Maybe we'll have a surprise and realize we shouldn't have, but we really applied the act and the attorney general agrees with us."
Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told The Canadian Press last week he did not personally sign any warrant or authorization calling for the arrest of Hinshaw-Thomas, and as per policy, would not comment on the particular case.
"I will say that the law is clear that anyone who aids or abets individuals entering in this country without proper documentation is subject to a charge under the immigration and refugee act and the law is clear," Nicholson said.