MPs prepare to head south to dissuade asylum seekers in U.S. from heading north once protected status expires

Members of Parliament are planning trips to the U.S. in the coming weeks to try to stem a potential new flow of asylum seekers to Canada that could result if the U.S. doesn't renew the temporary protected status of Haitian and other immigrants later this month.

MPs, diplomats sending blunt message: crossing into Canada illegally is not a free ticket to a new life

A group of asylum seekers raise their hands as they approach RCMP officers while crossing the Canadian border into Quebec near Champlain, N.Y., in August. Canadian MPs are planning a trip to the United States next week in the hopes of stemming another flow of border crossers if the protected status of some immigrants in the U.S. is lifted. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Members of Parliament are planning trips to the U.S. in the coming weeks to try to stem a potential new flow of asylum seekers to Canada.

Haitians who have been living in the U.S. under temporary protected status since the 2010 earthquake are facing potential deportation in the new year unless the U.S. Department of Homeland Security renews their status by Nov. 22, which it is not expected to do.

"We don't know what the U.S. will do to remove those people so we are doing messaging and using social media," said Emmanuel Dubourg, Liberal member of Parliament for the Bourassa riding in Quebec.

Dubourg said he and two other MPs will be going to the U.S. in the next two weeks to try to dissuade asylum seekers from Haiti, Africa, Central America and elsewhere from trying their luck in Canada in the same way that thousands of others have in the past year: by walking across the U.S.-Canada border at unofficial crossing points and applying for asylum once they get to Canada.

The RCMP has intercepted more than 15,000 asylum seekers crossing illegally between official ports of entry since January, the bulk of them in Quebec during the months of July through September.

Haitian-born Liberal MP Emmanuel Dubourg will be travelling to New York next week to meet with the Haitian immigrants who are likely to lose their temporary protected status later this month and whom he fears could try to cross into Canada illegally. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"The main reason is to tell them we have a robust immigration law and that they should use the right channels to come to Canada instead of crossing in between the borders," Dubourg said of his planned trip.

Canadian diplomats from a dozen consulates are also reaching out to non-governmental organizations, politicians and community groups, with a special focus on New York, Florida and California.

The government has recently issued blunt warnings that crossing into Canada illegally is not a free ticket to a new life. The Canada Border Services Agency has posted signs near irregular entry points to warn migrants against making an illegal crossing.

Canadian officials are also using social media to counter fake information that could be encouraging migrants to enter Canada. This was a significant factor in the surge of Haitians attempting crossings this summer so the government has started publishing videos online in Creole to push back against misinformation.

A Creole language pamphlet for Haitians in the U.S. spelling out legal ways to apply for asylum in Canada and advising against crossing illegally. Dubourg brought it with him when he visited the U.S. in the summer to meet with the Haitian community. (Emmanuel Dubourg)

Dubourg's efforts will focus on the Haitian community in New York City, he said.

Temporary protected status is granted to immigrants from some countries who are already in the U.S. when the government deems the situation in their home countries too unstable for them to return —for  example, on account of a natural disaster or a political crisis.

Haitians were granted protected status after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, countries ravaged by violence or natural disasters, also have active TPS designations. 

Canada has a similar program called temporary suspension of removals. It granted that status to Haitians in 2004 because of the political situation at the time but ended the program in 2016.

2nd visit south for Dubourg

Next week's trip won't be the first such mission for Dubourg, who was born in Haiti. This summer, when Haitians started flowing north fearing they would lose their protected status, the MP was dispatched to Miami to explain, often in Creole, that there is "no special program, no free ticket" for Haitians coming to Canada. 

Now, he and other members of the ad hoc intergovernmental task force on irregular migration, which includes Pablo Rodriguez, MP for the Montreal-area riding of Honoré​-Mercier, will be making return trips south.

Argentina-born Rodriguez speaks Spanish and can reach people of other nationalities whose status has recently ended, such as the estimated 2,550 Nicaraguans who were stripped of their protected status Monday.

He can also speak to those asylum seekers whose status is still pending, including 195,000 migrants from El Salvador who will learn their fate in January.

Argentina-born Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez will be travelling to the U.S. and reaching out to Spanish-speaking Central American immigrants whose protected status has ended or is expected end soon and who may be contemplating heading to Canada. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

While Canadian officials may be concerned about the potential impact here, Haitians and other migrants living under protected status in the U.S. are growing increasingly worried about the looming deadline and having to uproot their lives.

At a press conference held by the Haitian refugee group Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami in Miami this week, 10-year old, Christina Ponthieux, who has never set foot in Haiti, worries she could soon be deported back there.

She said that if she could get into the nearby Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach, Fla., residence of U.S. President Donald Trump, she would have a message for him.

"Let my people stay," she said, in a perfect American accent, "Because it would not only harm the families. It would be bad for business and bad for the economy. Because the people pay taxes."

Montreal group anticipates 'enormous amount of asylum seekers'

Christina and her father, who works as a nurse in Miami, are among an estimated 50,000 Haitians living in the U.S. under TPS.

Also speaking at the press conference was Farah Larrieux, who said there is a lot of fear in the community.

"Some people will go into the shadow, and we don't want that," she said. "Some people will find other options. They might go to Canada. And this will create a humanitarian crisis in the whole hemisphere."

Patricia ​Elizée, a lawyer in Miami with Haitian clients, says that if their protected status is removed, the Haitians "will not all get on a boat and go home. They will go on the black market."

'Let my people stay,' pleaded 10-year-old Christina Ponthieux, whose family came to the U.S. in 1999 and who has never set foot in Haiti. (Submitted by Rony Ponthieux)

"Some are asking if other countries are willing to take them in," she said.

Specifically with regards to Canada. "they are asking, 'Is it true you can go to Canada and get asylum?'"

She said she tells them it's not that easy.

Serge Bouchereau, spokesperson for a Haitian advocacy group in Montreal called the Non-Status Action Committee, is more alarmist about a potential influx.

"We will have an enormous amount of asylum seekers here in Canada if the TPS is lifted," he said, in French.

He said Haitians remember Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing to the world that refugees were welcome in Canada and former Montreal mayor Denis Coderre declaring Montreal a "sanctuary city" for refugees.

Roxham Road crossings down to 50-60 a day

Public Safety officials said they expect illegal crossings at the Roxham Road border point near Champlain, N.Y., which saw a surge of largely Haitian migrants this summer, to continue into the new year. They've paid for winterized trailers to replace the tent city that was set up to deal with the influx this summer.

The RCMP intercepted more than 10,000 asylum seekers at irregular crossings in Quebec between July and end of September alone. The pace of those illegal crossings has slowed, but it hasn't stopped. Officials say the crossings peaked this summer at about 250 per day and are now down to about 50 or 60 per day.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a meeting of the intergovernmental task force on irregular migration in Montreal in August. Thousands of migrants have walked across the U.S.-Canada border in various provinces, including Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Mitchell Goldberg, the president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, isn't as convinced a second wave of Haitians will flow north.

Some will go underground, and an increase in the numbers coming to Canada is "entirely possible," he said, but he expects most of the Haitians who planned to come already did so this summer.

Still, he says, there's such a backlog in the Canadian refugee system that the average wait time for a first hearing is 17 months. An appeal could add on another year. And refugees know this.

"When there is a slow process, there is incentive for them to come," said Goldberg. "If you know you can stay in the country for a long while without a decision, then there is incentive to come.

"For God's sake, give the IRB (Immigration and Refugee Board) the resources they are looking for."


Sylvia Thomson is a producer with the CBC in Toronto. She spent several years as a producer covering politics in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa and has covered major international stories.

With files from David Cochrane