Sunday, November 11, 2007

Centre allegedly linked to Windsor refugees closed

WINDSOR, Ont. -- A community centre in Florida largely blamed for sending a huge influx of Mexican and Haitian refugees to Windsor, Ont., was ordered to shut down Friday after the state attorney general's office investigated its "questionable practices.''

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said the Jerusalem Haitian Community Center in Naples, Fla., has agreed to close within four months and must reimburse anyone who paid for its services.

The community centre allegedly claimed it could assist immigrants in gaining entry into Canada and establishing legal residence -- claims the attorney general's office called "flawed and potentially deceptive.''

"While the state attorney general's office cannot enforce federal immigration law in this case, my office can investigate potentially misleading or deceptive practices, and I believe this organization was engaging in questionable practices,'' McCollum said in a statement.

Many of the refugees who dealt with the community centre headed for the southwestern Ontario city of Windsor, which borders Detroit. The resulting flood of people needing social services was so great that the city feared its annual social-services budget would be drained in months.

There are currently 448 refugees in Windsor, compared to the usual 50 the city receives from year to year, said Mayor Eddie Francis.

But he said he's just glad to see some type of resolution.

"It's unfortunate that so many people were misled,'' Francis said.

"It's somewhat of a relief to know that others won't follow the same course, others won't be misled, and others won't be making the trek across into Canada believing that there's some program here for refugees when there isn't that guarantee.''

Now that the tide of immigrants is expected to subside, Francis said he hopes the situation won't worsen, but the city of about 215,000 is still struggling to cope.

Programs aimed at helping low-income city residents are now having to stretch their limited resources to aid the refugees. Francis said the problem was illustrated a few weeks ago at an annual "Coats for Kids'' event.

"As a result of the refugees, a number of them -- actually the majority of the individuals that showed up were refugees -- so now the coats for kids that would normally provide for the community also had to provide for the refugees,'' he said.

The province has agreed to reimburse the municipal share of associated social costs -- $150,000 in September alone -- such as putting the refugees up in hotels because there was no more room in the city's shelters.

The community centre and its director Jacques Sinjuste must pay back each refugee's $400 "donation'' within two years.

About $32,000 has already been repaid, although the attorney general's office estimates the centre collected up to $170,000 from affected individuals. The centre was also ordered to reimburse the state for the costs of the investigation.