Mexicans Find a Rough Welcome Mat in Canada

Alan Freeman, Globe and Mail (Toronto), August 6, 2007

Claudia Molina used to think Canada was a welcoming place. But that was before the 32-year-old psychology graduate from Mexico City attempted to travel to Vancouver last year.

Ms. Molina, who works in the human-resources department of accounting firm KPMG in Mexico City, arrived at Vancouver International Airport in February of 2006 for a two-week visit with her boyfriend, an English teacher she met when she studied in Vancouver in 2005.

But as she came through immigration, she was quickly taken aside, suspected of trying to enter Canada to work illegally, even though she had a return ticket to Mexico and several thousand dollars in cash. Her luggage was searched and she was hauled off to a detention centre where her coat, shoes and personal effects were taken away. By the next morning, Ms. Molina was back on a plane to Mexico, angry, confused and humiliated.

“Nobody told me anything,” she said in an interview from Mexico City. “They treated me like I was a criminal. . . I didn’t do anything to make them do that to me.”

Ms. Molina’s case is part of a trend. Faced with a spike in refugee claims from Mexicans—the country is now the top source of asylum seekers in Canada—Canadian authorities have been refusing entry to increasing numbers of Mexican citizens attempting to visit the country as tourists.

Those turned away complain of harsh, insensitive and even racist treatment from Canadian officials, a view shared by the Mexican embassy in Ottawa. Increasingly irritated by the incidents, Mexican President Felipe Calderon is expected to raise the issue when he meets Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a North American summit this month in Montebello, Que.

Mauricio Guerrero, a spokesman for the Mexican embassy, said his country recognizes Canada’s sovereign right to reject or accept Mexicans intending to visit the country. But he said, “We don’t agree with the way those rejected citizens have been treated. Sometimes they are handcuffed. Sometimes they are put in police stations. Once they are rejected, they are not treated properly.”

Although it will not comment on individual cases, the Canada Border Services Agency denies any charges of discrimination, saying it is “committed to ensuring that all travellers are treated in a fair and equitable manner.”

An agency spokesman added that when dealing with travellers under arrest or detention, it has to deal with “the real issue of potential risk to public safety and security, as well as risk of flight.”

For the Mexicans, the issue is seen as a counterbalance to persistent Canadian complaints over the danger tourists face from gang violence and drugs, exacerbated by what is perceived as inefficient and sometimes corrupt policing.

Magaly Yanez is convinced that the Canadian officer who turned her away at Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport last year was racist. It was 6 p.m. on July 22, 2006, and Ms. Yanez, a 25-year-old hotel receptionist from Cancun, had arrived from Mexico to visit a friend who had just had a baby.

“I bought an open ticket because I wasn’t sure how long I was going to stay,” said Ms. Yanez, who studied business administration in university and said she had $1,000 in cash with her but no credit cards. The immigration officer was suspicious of the young woman’s intentions and accused her of coming to Canada to look for work.

“He told me that my passport was not valid,” she recalled. “But my passport was okay.” As for the allegation that she intended to work in Canada illegally, Ms. Yanez protests: “I have my family here [in Mexico.] I have work here. We Mexicans [do] not only travel to work. We travel to visit people, make friends, whatever.

“Then they arrested me. I had never been arrested before in my life. . . I felt humiliated because they opened my bags. They treated me like a bad person.” After a night in detention, Ms. Yanez was put on an 8 a.m. flight back to Mexico City, her vacation ruined and the hundreds of dollars spent on her ticket lost.

She complained to the Canadian embassy in Mexico about her treatment, but said she never heard back.

At the core of the problem is the fact that Mexican citizens are not required to obtain visas to enter Canada. That leaves the responsibility to officials at the port of entry to decide whether a Mexican arriving in Canada is there for a legitimate reason, such as study or vacation, or whether he or she is simply trying to slip in as a tourist to work illegally.

Canadian officials deny that Mexicans are being singled out. But they do point out that Mexicans have constituted the largest source of refugee claimants entering the country every year since 2003. In 2006, 3,419 Mexicans claimed refugee status.

These would-be refugees say they are subject to danger if they return home to Mexico for a variety of reasons, from sexual orientation to fear of Mexican criminal gangs. But their success rate is low: Only 13 per cent of claimants who had hearings in the first six months of 2007 were accepted as legitimate refugees, according to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.

In the past, when refugee claims have surged from other countries, including the Czech Republic, Portugal and Chile, the government has slapped on visa restrictions. But with Canada’s close trade and political ties with Mexico and the Harper government’s efforts to reinvigorate its ties with Latin America, any imposition of visa requirements is viewed as a diplomatic impossibility.

“It would be drastic to impose a visa,” said one senior Canadian official, noting that 200,000 Mexicans a year come to Canada on vacation and 10,000 students come to study here annually.

“They would not consider visas,” said Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer. “You can’t do it. It won’t work.”

But Mr. Kurland said there is clearly a problem involving young Mexicans coming into Canada purportedly on vacation but with the intention of staying on. “It’s the ones who are higher-educated, who figure they can earn some Canadian cash and remit it home or try it out for a year. Word has got out that Canada is loose on enforcement in the cash underground economy,” he said.

The Canada Border Services Agency insisted that admission to Canada is decided on a case-by-case basis, saying it was up to the traveller “to satisfy the border services officer that they are coming to Canada for a temporary purpose.”

“Our border services officers consider several factors when determining admissibility into Canada, including involvement in criminal activity, in human-rights violations, in organized crime, security, health or financial reasons,” said a spokesman for the agency.

But for Mexicans such as Armando Andria, a 25-year-old systems engineer who was detained and sent back to Mexico in April of last year after flying into Toronto on vacation, the experience changed his view of Canada.

“I thought Canada was a friendly country, un amigo,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I had no idea they treated people in this way.”

On arrival at Lester B. Pearson International Airport, he was immediately accused of wanting to live permanently in Toronto.

“They accused me of lying and said I had no plans to return home,” Mr. Andria said. “They went through my suitcase and said I had a lot of clothing for a 15-day trip. They even went through all my toiletries looking for drugs. Finally, two immigration detention officers arrived, handcuffed me and took me to a detention centre, just like I was a criminal.

“I asked to be permitted to make a call and they wouldn’t let me,” Mr. Andria continued. “In the morning, two officials came back, told me I wasn’t allowed to enter Canada and must return to Mexico. They handcuffed me, put me in a van and took me back to the airport. I left at 8 p.m. that night on a flight back to Mexico City.

“I lost my vacation time and my money. I would have expected this from the U.S. but never from Canada. It would almost be better if Canada had a visa requirement for Mexicans. At least then the rules would be clearer.”

Ms. Molina, the psychologist who was sent home when she tried to visit Vancouver, has since found another way of getting together with her Canadian boyfriend. He moved to Mexico City to work and be with her. But she still hesitates to try her luck with Canada again.

“If we go visit his family,” she said, “I’m afraid they’ll do the same to me again.”

With a report from Marina Jiménez

Coming to Canada

Tourism

Even as tourism from the United States plummets—in part because of the higher value of the Canadian dollar—Mexican travel to Canada continues to grow, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission.

In 2006, 210,000 Mexican tourists came to Canada, up 11.2 per cent over the previous year, and the number of visitors is expected to climb by another 10 per cent this year.

Canadian tourism officials have targeted Mexico by underwriting a series of promotional visits by Mexican journalists and celebrities to locales ranging from Whistler to Quebec City.

Also, air links between the two countries have been expanding. In addition to scheduled flights between Mexico City and Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, charter operators are offering summer flights to Edmonton from Mexico City and Guadalajara.

Refugee claims

Refugee claims from Mexicans have also increased. Citizenship and Immigration reports 3,419 Mexican adults claimed refugee status in 2006, more than four times the 800 claims made in 1997. Mexico has been the top source of refugee claimants since 2003, when it moved ahead of China.

But few Mexicans are successful: Only 13 per cent of Mexican claims heard by the Refugee Board in the first six months of 2007 were accepted, compared with 66 per cent of Haitian claims and 68 per cent of Colombian claims. The political situation in those countries is considered more volatile than Mexico’s, and so more dangerous for returning refugees.

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