Antonio Mejia travelled more than 7,500 kilometres to get to Vancouver. By train, by bus, and some of it on foot. For one stretch, he waded through water, across the Rio Grande under the cover of night.
“I worked for the police department, in El Salvador,” Mejia began, recounting his journey in an interview with the Georgia Straight.
Many years ago, in 1999, he sent a member of the notorious MS-13 gang to prison. When that man was released in 2009, he wanted payback, Mejia said.
In the years in between, he had gotten married and fathered two children. He had no desire to go a second round with MS-13. Mejia left the police force and his family relocated from Soyapango, a suburb east of the capital of San Salvador, to Santa Tecla, on its far west.
The death threats ceased. But one day the gang came for his eldest son.
“Now the banditos were trying to recruit my kid,” Mejia said.
“We’re all going to leave,” he told his wife.
In 2015, the couple and their children fled El Salvador for Guatemala. Mejia continued north, to look for work in America. For two years, he found odd jobs, first in Texas and then California, trying to establish a new life in the United States. Then came November 8, 2016.
“When Trump won, everything changed,” Mejia said, interviewed with the assistance of a translator.
“There was no way I was ever going to get legal status there,” he explained. “There was never going to be a fair decision. So I began to prepare everything to leave.”
Sharp increases in illegal border crossings
Mejia is part of a wave of Latin American people who are fleeing the United States for Canada. During the first 10 months of 2017, the RCMP intercepted roughly 17,000 immigrants who crossed the border on foot. That compares to 2,486 interceptions the previous year, according to data supplied by the federal police force.
The vast majority of that activity has been in Quebec. There, the influx occurred so fast that in August, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was converted into a temporary shelter and people were forced to sleep there on cots. But B.C. has also experienced a sharp increase in refugee claims.
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), from 2011 to 2016 there were an average of 142 asylum claims filed annually at B.C. land ports. Then, during the first 10 months of 2017, there were 275.
A different set of statistics—national figures compiled by IRCC—details where these people are coming from. It shows that asylum claims from several Latin American countries have skyrocketed over just the last year.
From 2016 to 2017, asylum claims where the individual alleged persecution in Mejia’s home country of El Salvador jumped 208 percent, to a projected 752 (based on the year’s first nine months of data).
From Mexico, they rose 394 percent, to 1,235.
And yet those jumps are nothing compared to that of Haiti.
From 2016 to 2017, asylum claims for the impoverished Caribbean nation leapt from 631 to a projected 8,332—an increase of 1,220 percent.
Finally, refugee claims where a person alleged persecution in the United States have also risen sharply, by 574 percent this year, from 129 in 2016 to a projected 869 in 2017.
A major factor behind these increases is Donald Trump.
Since an earthquake devastated much of Haiti in 2010, some 59,000 Haitians have resided legally in America under a designation called temporary protected status (TPS). Through 2017, there grew increasing speculation that the Trump administration would cease renewing those people’s legal papers. Then, on November 20, fears were confirmed.
“The Trump administration has given nearly 60,000 Haitians with provisional legal residency in the United States 18 months to leave,” reads a report in the Washington Post.
In addition to Haiti, there are similar TPS classifications for people living in the U.S. who are originally from Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. If the Trump administration decides to end those arrangements as well, the number of people forced to leave America would total more than 400,000.
How many might head north is anybody’s guess.
A campaign of racism
On June 16, 2015, a developer turned reality-television star descended on an escalator at Trump Tower in New York City and officially announced his bid for president of the United States.
Trump had built his political career nagging Barack Obama to release his birth certificate. It was an openly racist suggestion that America’s first black president was illegitimate. Trump’s 2017 campaign launched on a similar note.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” the billionaire said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems.…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
After he was inaugurated on January 20, 2017, Trump followed through on xenophobic policies he had promised during the campaign. He tried and is still trying to ban travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries. His Justice Department is investigating Harvard University for using affirmative action in deciding admissions and he has signalled other institutions could soon be next. In San Diego, prototypes for a new border wall stand 30 feet tall, and Trump has said that one of them will be selected for construction along the 3,000-kilometre border that separates America from Mexico. Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are conducting nationwide sweeps of undocumented immigrants, deploying checkpoints throughout southern states, and arresting people at schools and hospitals. Thousands are being deported.
Mejia said he felt it all coming.
“When Donald Trump began to get popular support, I knew that I couldn’t stay in the United States,” he recalled. “I’ve lived the racism there.”
In May 2017, Mejia crossed the border from the United States into Canada. “And I put in a refugee claim,” he said.
Rhetoric without action to back it
Harsha Walia is an author and activist with No One Is Illegal (NOII), an immigrant-support network that’s active in Vancouver. In a telephone interview, she said the RCMP and IRCC statistics match what she’s observed anecdotally. For example, Walia pointed to a NOII phone number that people can call for information and advice. “And since December, there was a huge uptick in folks calling from the U.S.,” she said. Walia estimated that calls specifically from undocumented immigrants living in the United States increased from one or two a month to more than 10 a week. She added they’ve remained at that higher volume for months now.
“People are saying, ‘I’m from this country of origin, I’ve been living in the U.S. for 20 years, but it’s no longer safe for me here,’ ” Walia continued. “Everyone says it’s Trump. Everyone says, ‘I no longer feel safe living in the United States. I don’t know what to expect. I need to leave before it gets worse.’ ”
Along with Trump, Walia argued that part of the blame falls on his Canadian counterpart: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
On January 27, 2017, Trump signed an executive order that said “extreme vetting” would henceforth apply against refugees and all immigrants hoping to relocate to America. One day later, a message went out over Trudeau’s Twitter account. “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith,” it reads. “Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada”.
Walia said the problem with that message is an arrangement between Canada and the United States called the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). It states that an individual claiming refugee status in either country must do so in the first country they reach. If someone who claims persecution in Haiti, for example, travels through the United States and then files an asylum claim at the border crossing at Surrey, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is instructed by the terms of the STCA to transfer that individual to U.S. authorities.
“People thought they could just come and claim asylum because of all the false propaganda that Trudeau was putting out,” Walia said. “We were like, ‘No!’ It was really worrying because there are many people who did that.”
The Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and Canada Border Services Agency both declined to grant an interview.
Jenny Kwan is the MP for Vancouver East and NDP critic for multiculturalism, immigration, refugees, and citizenship. She told the Straight that the STCA combined with Trudeau’s warm rhetoric on refugees is why there has been such a sharp increase in illegal border crossings.
“It’s all very well and fine for the prime minister to imply on social media that Canada will step up and help,” Kwan said via phone. “But, in reality, we haven’t done the work to reflect that sentiment.”
Kwan said that’s why she’s spent 11 months now calling for Canada to withdraw from the STCA. “Canada can no longer have confidence that the American refugee system is providing a safe haven for those who face persecution,” she said last January in the House of Commons.
“Suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement,” Kwan repeated in her interview with the Straight, “so that people are not forced to cross through these irregular crossings, risking life and limb.”
She criticized the Liberal government for refusing to debate the idea.
“Our prime minister and our minister of immigration have persisted to say that nothing has changed since Trump has been elected,” Kwan said. “I think everyone else knows that things have changed, and changed quite drastically.…The president himself is acting to normalize discrimination and fanning hate and fear. If you’re an immigrant or from an ethnic minority, you feel targeted.”
Support services stretched thin
Byron Cruz works with a Vancouver-based immigrant-support group called Sanctuary Health. He told the Straight he’s observed a rise in requests for assistance similar to what Walia described.
“We have seen an increase of families and individuals who are coming from the United States,” he said. “Last week, I met with 17. And most of them crossed the border in the last six months.”
Cruz noted there are many programs and services available to newcomers to the Lower Mainland, but he added that refugees often face additional challenges and lack extra support.
“No one wants to give them a place to live,” he said. “As soon as the word refugee comes, they hear, ‘No, we cannot give you housing.’ They think that they will not be able to pay. And of course a refugee claimant doesn’t have references. And people are racist toward them.”
One organization that does offer services specifically for asylum claimants who land in B.C. is the Inland Refugee Society. But its executive director, Mario Ayala, told the Straight that the recent increase in demand has stretched the group thin.
Like Cruz, Ayala said that housing is the most pressing concern.
“We have a network of churches, organizations, and other housing providers. We even have an account with Airbnb. But, at this point, everything is full,” he said.
Ayala asked for empathy.
“In El Salvador right now, they are killing police,” he said. “The police are being killed and there is no safe place for them to live.”
Ayala emphasized that refugees who end up in the Unites States are often there not by choice, but necessity.
“And now they are fleeing the United States, because they fear Trump will implement new policies against immigrants,” he said. “Because they are afraid of the words of the president.”More