MONTREAL, Quebec—The flow of people seeking refugee status in Canada has grown exponentially in recent months. More people have walked into the Province of Quebec since August than in all of 2016 across the entire length of the Canadian border. On one recent day, people from Yemen, Haiti, Burundi and Nigeria as they crossed illegally into Canada from upstate New York seeking refugee status. Had they tried to cross at a legal border crossing, they would have been sent back immediately. The net result is acontinued flow of migrants on foot who don’t use legal border crossings, testing a nation that historically welcomes refugees.
Canada’s refugee system has become overloaded since the U.S. presidential election. If you apply to stay in Canada as a refugee, you are supposed to get a hearing within 60 days. That just isn’t happening. There aren’t enough lawyers to process a mounting backlog. Now Canada is weighing its traditional welcome for refugees against the country’s ability to absorb them.
In Montréal, I met Haitians who were sharing their stories from the migrant trail. Agathe St Preux is at the table. She lived in Miami for 12 years. This summer, as signs signaled the end of a temporary US residency program for Haitians, St Preux crossed into Canada and made her way to Montréal.
“I breathe better, life is quiet here, people are kind,” she said, her infectious smile lighting up the room.
Canada has historically valued the skills and money that many migrants, especially well educated professionals, bring in. Immigration is leveraged to stabilize the labor force where shortages sometimes materialize. Today Canada particularly values foreign hi-tech workers and caregivers for the elderly, two groups with widely divergent income levels. Canada said recently that it plans to raise the numbers of migrants that it will accept between now and 2020.
Immigration lawyer and David Berger is a member of the Canadian Council for Refugees, an NGO that advocates for migrants. Berger is also Canada’s former Ambassador to Israel and a former member of Canada’s Parliament.
“We’ve got a backlog today of 30,000 claims whereas about two years ago the backlog was 10 or 15 thousand,” he explained. He said there aren’t enough immigration judges, formally known in Canada as decision makers.
“We believe the government has to appoint more decision makers. 120 decision makers is just not enough,” Berger continued. He added that Canada is a better country for the contributions refugees make. He represents or has represented people with advanced degrees in literature and finance, images that defy stereotypes harbored by some anti-immigrant forces.
The river of refugees is affecting public opinion. One national poll has suggested that four in ten Canadians believe the country is taking in too many refugees. The fate of refugees has also complicated the Canada-U.S. diplomatic relationship at times. When the Trump administration moved to ban travelers from seven majority Muslim nations and suspend the Syrian refugee program, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in a now famous tweet in his country that refugees are welcome in Canada.
Marjorie Villefranche heads Maison D’Haiti (Haiti House) in Montréal, a resource center for refugees from many nations. “I think the tension is, how can a country like Canada admit that, you know, the United States is not a safe country? Politically it’s very difficult to say that.”
Alessandra Santopadre is a migrant advocate at the Archdiocese of Montréal. The Archdiocese runs a shelter in a church rectory known as Le Pont, or ‘The Bridge.’ Santopadre acknowledged that rising numbers of Canadians aren’t comfortable with Canada’s refugee levels.
“They start to be afraid because these people, they don’t speak our language, they take our welfare or someone doesn’t want to rent a house to a refugee,” she said. “There are all these problems that stress everybody. But I think that (being) different is not a problem. Different can be a richness.”
The fate of refugees entering the country is a relatively recent conversation in Canada, which does a lot to at least help refugees get started. When a refugee arrives, before a final decision on whether they can or can’t stay permanently, applicants receive a monthly stipend, their children can enroll in school and like all Canadians, they are eligible to receive access to health care.
Philip Oxhorn is a political scientist at McGill University. He told me that accommodating those refugees is demanding but manageable. “Undoubtedly there’s been overcrowding. But the state has done as much as one might expect given the huge relative increase in the numbers of people coming.”
Oxhorn says Canada is wrestling with those numbers. Some government workers have been deployed on weekends to work with refugees. But given the federal government’s plan to boost refugee numbers, he expects the country will continue to value the place that refugees hold in Canada’s multi-ethnic tapestry.