Salvadoran asylum seekers could test Canada's immigration system

The federal government's contingency plans for a new surge of asylum seekers at the border this winter could be put to the test with the pending U.S. decision on the fate of as many as 200,000 Salvadorans.

With their temporary protected status under threat in the U.S., Salvadorans may see Canada as an option

Asylum seekers line up to enter Olympic Stadium in August 2017 near Montreal. The federal government's contingency plans for a new surge of asylum seekers could be put to the test with the pending decision on the fate of 200,000 Salvadorans. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The federal government's contingency plans for a new surge of asylum seekers at the border this winter could be put to the test with the pending U.S. decision on the fate of as many as 200,000 Salvadorans.

The Trump administration is on the cusp of announcing whether it will renew the temporary protected status that's allowed Salvadorans to live in the United States without fear of deportation since 2001.

Their status expires in March, and with the U.S. ending what's known as the TPS program for thousands of nationals from other countries in recent months, it's likely Salvadorans are next.

The U.S. has argued the temporary nature of the program has been abused, and the conditions — like natural disasters or conflict — that had made it unsafe for people to return to certain countries have changed.

Thousands face deportation

But that's left thousands of people facing deportation to countries they haven't lived in for years.

When asked what he'd do if he lost his TPS status, Salvadoran Carlos Reyes, 40, who lives in Long Island, N.Y., told Newsday that Canada was an option.

"One thing I know is I'm going to lose my job, and if I don't have a job, what can I do? I don't want to go [to El Salvador] but I won't be able to stay here," he told the American newspaper this week.

"…There's Canada, but I don't know anything about Canada. My life and everything is here."

In this May 2017 photo, Nancy Vasquez, a Salvadoran citizen with temporary protected status in the U.S., cleans up her food truck at a construction site in Rockville, Md. (Luis Alonso Lugo/Associated Press)

Salvadorans represent the largest population covered by the temporary protected status program and the potential for them and other Central Americans to come to Canada was flagged in briefing notes by Canadian diplomats in the U.S. earlier this year, following a surge of Haitian asylum seekers showing up at the border.

Haitians lost status last summer

The Haitians began arriving even before a final decision had been made on their temporary status and the surge — upwards of 200 people a day in the summer months — saw the Liberal government scramble to mount a response.

Temporary shelters were set up at the Quebec-New York border and dozens of RCMP, border and immigration officials were dispatched to the area to manage the situation.

At the same time, plans were drawn up for a longer-term response to the situation should another major surge materialize.

Winterized trailers were purchased and are now in use at the Lacolle, Que., crossing. A contingency plan — the details of which have not been made public — remains at the ready.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale suggested it's not being rolled out quite yet.

In this March 2017 file photo, police carry a body to a forensic vehicle after a shootout between private security guards and gang members in San Salvador, El Salvador. The country registered nearly 4,000 killings in 2017, making it among the world's most deadly places to live. (Salvador Melendez/Associated Press)

"The volume of irregular border crossers at Lacolle recently has been comparable to the levels we've seen this fall," Scott Bardsley said in an email.

Just over 1,500 people in total crossed illegally into Canada in November, down from 5,530 in August. But the November numbers are still comparatively high — in January 2017, only 315 people crossed.

Haitians make up the vast majority of the border crossers who have filed asylum claims; Salvadorans don't currently even crack the top 10, according to figures from the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Salvadoran claims increasing

But asylum claims from Salvadorans have been on the rise. Data from the IRB shows that 244 refugee claims were lodged in Canada by Salvadorans in all of 2016. Between January and September of 2017, there were 564.

In addition to preparations at the border itself, the federal government has launched a campaign in the U.S. to try stop people from coming in the first place.

Some of the asylum seekers were spurred north by a misconception that Canada has special immigration programs in place for people covered by the temporary status program in the U.S.

Both Spanish-speaking and Creole-speaking MPs, and the federal immigration minister, were dispatched to Florida, New York, Texas, California, and Minnesota for outreach to affected populations. As well, consulates in a dozen cities ramped up their own outreach efforts in local media and elsewhere to try to communicate the rules around Canada's asylum system.

Challenges remain. As late as November, the consul general of Nicaragua in Miami was telling local media that Canada was offering immigration alternatives to nationals from that country whose TPS status had been revoked.

Meanwhile, would-be refugees continue to flock online seeking advice on how best to get to Canada from the U.S. via unofficial channels. They're seeking those routes because of an immigration agreement between Canada and the U.S. that precludes people from filing asylum claims at legal border entry points.

Targeted digital campaign

The Canadian government is now trying to target those people as well, said Hursh Jawal, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

"We are also implementing a targeted digital campaign, using exclusively search engine marketing, to target specific TPS-affected communities," he said in an email.

"Canadians can be reassured that governments at all levels will continue to work together to protect our communities and maintain the integrity of our immigration system, all while respecting our international obligations to protect vulnerable persons fleeing war, terror and persecution."