IMMIGRATION: RECORD NUMBERS HIT CANADA
A record number of Mexicans are fleeing to Canada, claiming their own country cannot keep them safe as it struggles to contain a grisly narcotics war that is spilling into nightclubs and restaurants.
There are currently 9,070 Mexican refugee claimants waiting to have their cases heard, the largest number yet from one country since the Immigration and Refugee Board was established in 1989.
"We all know and love Mexico and Mexican beaches, but that is not the real Mexico," said Doug Lehrer, a Toronto lawyer. "Mexican authorities are completely overwhelmed and can't offer ordinary people a reasonable level of protection."
More than 3,000 people have been killed in the past year there, as more than 30,000 soldiers and police take on drug cartels, and trafficking organizations fight amongst themselves over turf and smuggling routes.
The brutality is intense: human heads lobbed into discos; bound men found asphyxiated in cars; shootouts in shopping centres in the middle of the day. In September, grenades were lobbed at a public celebration of Independence Day in Morelia, a colonial town about 240 kilometres west of Mexico City, prompting some to call it "narco-terrorism" as the victims were civilians.
In several rulings perused by The Globe and Mail, the IRB believes the claimants' horrifying tales of violence, but rejects their claims on the grounds they must turn to their own country for protection.
Recently, though, the Federal Court of Canada has overturned a half-dozen decisions, questioning how ordinary Mexicans can seek protection from the state when police officers are corrupt, or under fire themselves.
Gadiel Flores Angeles, a taxi driver from Mexico City whom police kidnapped, beat and extorted money from, won a new hearing last month.
Judge Douglas R. Campbell pointed out the impossibility of Mr. Angeles and his wife turning to the Mexican police or state for protection "when the agents of persecution are the ... police."
The IRB believed Mr. Angeles, who said judicial police beat him unconscious in September of 2006. Two months later, police kidnapped him. His captors demanded a $9,200 ransom, and he was released five days later after his family paid half the ransom. He left for Veracruz, but the captors tracked him down and threatened to kill him if he didn't pay the remainder. Mr. Angeles then fled in January of 2007, but after he left, his wife was forced into a car, threatened and then raped by police.
Mexico has been Canada's top source country for refugees for the past four years, with Mexicans now making up one-third of all refugee claimants. However, the acceptance rate for Mexicans is just 11 per cent, compared with an overall acceptance rate of 34 per cent.
Even immigration lawyers acknowledge that some Mexicans are bogus claimants with made-up stories. However, they say many are not, and that the IRB's high refusal rate doesn't reflect the current brutal reality of Mexico's drug war.
"It's like there are two groups of claimants, the ones with made-up stories who know they can get legal aid and a work permit here. And then there are the ones who genuinely are fleeing terrible persecution," said Robert Blanshay, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of Mexicans over the past two years, including Mr. Angeles. "I get the sense the IRB doesn't know how to distinguish between these two groups."
When Canada signed on to the United Nations Convention for Refugees, there was no expectation the country would have to give Mexicans fleeing drug lords or police a safe haven.
Canada's NAFTA trading partner is, after all, a vibrant democracy with all the government institutions in place to protect its citizens. However, police at the municipal and state levels are often in cahoots with the "criminal gangs" who are fighting the government's attempt to dismantle their organizations, Mr. Blanshay said.
Other examples of IRB decisions recently overturned on appeal include:
Viridiana Catalina Herrera Villalva, 30, whose boyfriend, an investigative journalist writing about the connection between drug traffickers and police, disappeared in April of 2005. Ms. Villalva was abducted and held at gunpoint twice. She won her appeal in March of 2008, and the case is to be re-heard.
Andromeda Diaz de Leon, 31, who was investigating the drug operations in Chihuahua for a radio station. Her source, a director in the state security unit, was murdered by armed assassins in 2005. The Police Chief Commander of Chihuahua and his partner were assassinated 13 days later, their index fingers amputated and placed in their mouths, signifying they were identified as informants. She left for Canada after receiving two threatening phone calls. She, too, won her appeal.
Sara Laura Triana Aguirre, who was beaten by her husband. He raped her sister after she found cocaine, cash, a gun and a list of names associated with a drug cartel in his portfolio. After Ms. Aguirre, her sister and their three children left the home, her husband shot the family dog and wrote a warning on the wall. They fled to Canada in 2006 but their claim was rejected. In May of this year, they won their appeal after the Federal Court found Mexican authorities don't protect women adequately against violence and abuse.
The IRB cannot say how many Mexican claimants are fleeing violence or drug cartels because it doesn't track cases in that way. However, immigration lawyers say many Mexicans claimants are fleeing persecution because of criminality, spousal assault or sexual orientation.
In May, the board adopted what it calls a "persuasive decision," intended to guide board members. The decision acknowledged that criminality, corruption, kidnapping and drug trafficking are problems in Mexico. However, it also noted that Mexico is making serious efforts to contain those crimes, and that refugee claimants cannot simply say they went to see "some member of the police force and that his or her efforts were unsuccessful."
Mexicans can make claims at the border because they are exempt from the Canada-U.S. Third Country Agreement, which requires all refugees to seek asylum in the first country they reach. As well, they do not need visas to enter Canada.
The U.S. State Department put out an alert last week warning that the Mexican army and police are engaged in "small-unit combat," with drug cartels using automatic weapons and grenades.
Mexicans in Canada
From 2000 to 2007, 15,180 Mexicans arrived in Canada as permanent residents, 82,715 as temporary workers and 21,199 as foreign students.
From January of 2000 to June of 2008, 29,956 Mexicans entered as refugee claimants.
BY THE NUMBERS
Cases from Mexico made to the Immigration and Refugee Board, January to June, 2008: 3,589
Cases from Mexico still waiting to be heard: 9,070 (followed by Haiti with 2,450 and Colombia with 1,506)
Portion of total refugee cases waiting to be heard: 32 per cent
Acceptance rate for Mexicans: 11 per cent
Compiled by Marina Jiménez