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GRAND FORKS — What happens when an asylum seeker tries to cross into Canada properly? A single mom trying to escape gangs threatening her and her son in El Salvador took her life savings and made a run for safety to Canada.
But when she showed up at the Emerson border crossing and asked for refugee protection, she was turned away.
She learned the hard way about the Safe Third Country Agreement — that automatically she would be rejected if she presented herself to border officials and asked for refugee status in Canada because the U.S. is considered a safe third country for refugee claimants.
It never dawned on her that, in order to make a refugee claim in Canada, she would have to sneak across the border.
"I never broke the rules in my life," said Lizbeth, 54. Since she was turned away at the border in late October, she has been living in "limbo" in Grand Forks, N.D. She didn’t want her last name published because her six-month U.S. tourist visa expired in April and she’s scared she’ll be deported to El Salvador. Her son, now 15, is there with his grandparents hiding from gang recruiters, she said.
"My boy is my life," said Lizbeth, dabbing at tears and running mascara with a tissue. "I did not know about the agreement between the two countries and I came alone with the hope and security of the support that Canada offers to those who need help."
She flew from San Salvador to Houston on Oct. 24. She took a bus to Grand Forks and arrived on Oct. 26. She had just $150 and spent $145 on a cab to the Canadian border. She had a friend in Winnipeg she was sure would help them.
When she got to the Canadian border she was told that, while she may have a legitimate refugee claim, Canada had no choice but to turn her away: "This is the law and the law says ‘no.’"
There’s no way of knowing how many asylum seekers in the U.S. like Lizbeth mistakenly think they’re doing the right thing by going to the Canadian border and asking for refugee protection.
A spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency said its systems do not track claims either accepted or rejected because of the Safe Third Country Agreement.
The Canadian border officer, Lizbeth said, seemed empathetic and gave her contact information for the Northland Rescue Mission and the Global Friend Coalition in Grand Forks but told her she wouldn’t be able to apply to enter Canada for one year.
"He walked me to the border of the United States." In the U.S., only one-third of refugee claims from El Salvador are approved, according to Nolo.com, a non-profit legal aid website. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Salvadorans fled their home to escape a long and brutal civil war. Starting in the 2000s, it was to escape drug trafficking and violence from gangs. They’re fleeing harm or fear of harm by criminal gangs that the government of El Salvador cannot control that rely on forced recruitment to expand their membership. Recruiters often target specific groups of people, particularly the poor or otherwise marginalized, Nolo.com says.
At the U.S. border office, Lizbeth was finger-printed and photographed before being taken to a gas station in Pembina. She was offered a motel room to sleep and shower and told that an area pastor would pay for it. The next day, she was driven to Grand Forks. She spent her first months at the mission taking English and sewing classes and trying to figure out what to do. Her friend in Winnipeg, Julio Pintin, has written emails and letters to his MP, Terry Duguid, and Immigration Ministers John McCallum then Ahmed Hussen asking them to allow her to come to Canada on compassionate grounds.
Duguid’s response defended the Safe Third Country Agreement, calling it an "important tool for Canada and the U.S. to work together on the orderly handling of refugee claims made in our countries." There was no response from either immigration minister, said Pintin.
Immigration lawyer Bashir Khan said he’s unsure of what options are available to someone in Lizbeth’s situation. If she was to sneak into Canada now, she wouldn’t be able to make a refugee claim. She could however, apply for a pre-removal risk assessment and if she can prove that it is too risky to return to El Salvador, she could stay in Canada and be allowed to work. The question is whether her son would be allowed to join her, said Khan.
Unless Jose can get to a country outside of El Salvador, like Costa Rica, where the UNHCR can grant refugee status, or make a run for Canada and sneak in on foot to ask for refugee protection, there’s little hope of him getting to Canada any time soon, said Khan.
"If you go the ‘right way’, you don’t have the right to make a refugee claim," he said.
Lizbeth is being sheltered at the home of someone in Grand Forks’ faith community and trying to keep a low profile to avoid deportation. She’s volunteering at the mission and praying for a miracle.
"I need peace and no fear and opportunity for my son," said the divorcee, saying everything she’s worked for has been for him. She’s received no support from her ex-husband but made sure their son, Jose, went to a private Catholic school that was gated and out of reach of the gangs. To make ends meet, the university-educated mom worked in marketing, found an affordable place to rent outside of the capital and drove Jose 25 kilometres to school every day before going to work.
Trouble started when their community became "saturated with gangs," she said. Streets became "invisible borders" with gangs charging residents a dollar to pass through their territory. Last summer, when Jose was 14, a gang member approached her and her son and called him by name, saying "You’re growing up, you have to join us."
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"It’s a shocking experience," said Lizbeth. She went to the U.S. embassy to get a tourist visa for her son, thinking they could fly to the U.S. then catch a bus that runs close to Canada. There is no Canadian embassy in El Salvador, she said. The closest is in Guatemala, with long waits for visa processing, she said. The U.S. gave Lizbeth a tourist visa but wouldn’t allow one for her son. In September, when she was out with her son, the gangs forced her to act.
Five thugs grabbed Jose. She shouted at them to let him go and she was thrown to the ground. "My son was screaming ‘Mom! Mom! Mom!’" A man in a car saw what was happening and caused a ruckus that allowed Lizbeth and her son to escape. When they went to the police, they refused to help. "They said there’s nothing they can do. That’s when we moved," she said, dabbing at tears.
With its humane reputation, respect for human rights and lack of discrimination, she believed Canada would offer her asylum and allow her to raise her son there in safety.
"I took a backpack with two pairs of pants, two blouses, and say ‘OK - I have hope and faith and I love my son’ and got on a plane to Houston," she said. "My only objective is to move to Canada. I need to work and I need for my boy to have opportunities and to be safe."
Carol Sanders Legislature reporter
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Gerardo Aguilar remembers a safer, more humane time for asylum seekers in Canada.
The retired Welcome Place employee said up until 2000, he’d drive to the border every couple of weeks to pick up an asylum seeker or two at the Canadian port of entry. A faith-based organization in Grand Forks helped asylum seekers in genuine need of protection prepare their refugee claims, then contacted Welcome Place and arranged for someone to pick them up at the Canadian border.
The asylum seekers presented themselves at the Canadian border with their paper work and requested refugee status. Aguilar then drove them to Welcome Place, where they filled out more paper work. They’d obtain a work permit while they’d await their immigration court date that often took up to two years.
During that time, they’d find jobs, earn a living, improve their language skills and pay taxes, said Aguilar.
“They were building the economy,” said Aguilar, who was a pharmacist in El Salvador until civil war made him a refugee. He arrived in Canada in 1983 and went to work helping other newcomers at Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council’s Welcome Place. He occasionally runs into a former “passenger” around Winnipeg and he hasn’t heard of anyone who hasn’t successfully integrated.
“Why didn’t they continue doing this?” he asked.
Aguilar was horrified to learn about the Safe Third Country Agreement driving desperate asylum seekers to sneak into Canada on foot - especially Ghanaians Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, who lost their fingers to frostbite, and Mavis Otuteye, who died of hypothermia.
The Canada-U.S. agreement enacted in 2004 requires asylum seekers to claim refugee status in the first safe country in which they arrive. Because the U.S. is not accepting most refugee claimants, they’re being driven to use irregular means of getting into Canada where, once inside, they can legally apply for refugee protection because Canada honours its UN commitment to make sure it’s not removing anyone who’s at risk of they’re returned to their country.
Canadian critics say the U.S. no longer meets the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act’s definition of a safe third country because it’s not respecting human rights and offering a high degree of protection to asylum seekers.
“It’s no longer a safe country,” Aguilar said. The anti-refugee rhetoric and executive orders issued by the American president should make the deal null and void, he said. “Donald Trump is breaking that agreement.”