It was a cold February night and the ground was covered with snow when Juan, Carmen and their 11-year-old son Jose slipped across the U.S. border into British Columbia.
Carmen is seven months pregnant and she dreaded being separated from her children if she was deported from the States, a possibility that had suddenly become very real after the election of Donald Trump. And so, the Honduran family decided to try their luck in Canada, where they had heard the government was more welcoming to refugees.
“We had to run. We ran in danger of being caught,” Carmen said of her arrival in B.C.
The family has been here a week and is seeking legal aid to file a refugee claim next week. Postmedia News agreed to use only their first names for this story.
Speaking through a translator, the family said they left Honduras because Jose had no future there, except to be forcibly recruited into one of the violent gangs that control much of the country. The family had lost their home when they could no longer afford to pay a “war tax” to the local criminals — they were given just two days to leave or they would be killed.
After a long, dangerous journey through Guatemala and Mexico, they settled in the eastern U.S., where they lived happily for two years until a new president was elected on a promise of deporting millions of people like them. Now, they say many Central American migrants are planning to head north.
“My work friends, a lot of them said they were going to come to Canada,” Juan said.
The federal Immigration Department couldn’t provide any recent statistics on people seeking asylum after crossing the border on foot, but spokeswoman Nancy Caron wrote in an email that “we have not seen a surge in the number of in-land refugee claims in the past few months.”
But refugee advocates in Metro Vancouver say otherwise. Although the numbers in B.C. don’t compare to the hundreds of asylum seekers who have braved the bitter cold at the border near Emerson, Man., in recent weeks, anecdotal evidence suggests an increase here as well.
Sanctuary Health’s Byron Cruz, who works with undocumented migrants, said his organization knows of five or six groups that have walked across the border in the past two weeks.
“Probably in the last three years, the number of refugee claimants from Latin America was reduced tremendously. We just didn’t see refugee claimants coming,” he said.
“For us, in the last two weeks, seeing five, six groups of people is like, wow.”
But after finding and crossing an isolated stretch of the 8,890-km border into Canada, their fear of deportation may not fade. Cruz wants to warn people living in the U.S. not to make any rash decisions about coming north based on the sunny images of Justin Trudeau they see in the American media.
“Our message to people in sanctuary cities in the States is that you are probably better off there,” he said.
Undocumented migrants often seek one Canada’s three sanctuary cities, all in Ontario — Toronto, Hamilton and London — which have adopted policies intended to protect them from deportation and allow them to access municipal services.
Ottawa, Regina, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Montreal are all mulling such policies.
But Vancouver stopped short of becoming a sanctuary city, instead introducing an “access without fear” policy last April.
The policy only applies to services provided by the city, and not to civic services provided by police, parks and libraries, which are governed by individual boards. It doesn’t cover agencies of other governments active in the city.
In Canada, “sanctuary city” has a much different meaning than in the U.S., said Harsha Walia, an organizer with No One Is Illegal. In a majority of U.S. sanctuary cities, local police don’t collaborate with immigration officials (it’s not clear whether Vancouver police will). U.S. sanctuary cities also guarantee access to a much wider range of public services than in Canada, she added.
“I think that difference is vital. I think there will be more sanctuary cities (in Canada) but the fear is that they will be much more symbolic than meaningful,” said Walia, adding that a “sanctuary province” would be more effective by granting broader access to services.
Walia said her organization has also seen an increase in people crossing into Canada “irregularly,” including four last week, she said.
“People expected that they could declare themselves and receive asylum in Canada right away,” she said. “And so almost everybody was like, ‘Where can I go to get my papers?’ ”
No One Is Illegal is calling on the federal government to rescind the Canada-U. S. Third Safe Country Agreement, which requires refugees to claim status in the first of the two countries in which they land. It allows Canadian officials to turn away refugees who arrive from other countries via the U.S.
Immigration lawyer Zool Suleman was part of a mayor’s working group that developed Vancouver’s access without fear policy.
Suleman said he recognizes that it’s not the same as becoming a sanctuary city but said it’s useful in allowing people to use basic services.
“I think there is some desire for several of the larger municipalities and cities to seriously consider an access without fear policy,” Suleman said. “The question becomes, should there be some kind of Metro Vancouver access without fear policy?”
Laura Track, staff lawyer with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said in an email that the association supports Vancouver’s work to make city services accessible for people without legal immigration status.
The BCCLA is aware of a rising number of people crossing into Canada to make refugee claims and echoes calls for the suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement, Track said.
“Some of them have suffered severe frostbite during the long journey, and lost fingers as a result of the cold. They are making this dangerous journey because they know that under the Safe Third Country Agreement, they will be turned back if they show up at a border crossing.”