A sizable community of Metro Vancouver residents is on alert this holiday season, fearing raids by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).
In a telephone interview, Harsha Walia, an organizer with No One Is Illegal (NOII), reported that the organization has seen a sharp spike in calls from undocumented immigrants asking for assistance.
“We usually get three to five calls a week, and the last month we got probably close to double,” she said. “We are getting more calls from people who are in detention, more calls from people who had just been visited at their homes or workplaces with deportation orders.”
Walia added that NOII observed a similar increase in calls last year and in 2013 at this time. She said that has her wondering if CBSA intensifies enforcement activities toward the end of each year in an effort to meet quotas for deportation orders.
“We aren’t trying to be alarmist, but we want people to know that this is going on,” she said.
CBSA refused requests for an interview. The CBSA annual report for 2013-14 only quantifies immigration-enforcement actions as a percentage. It states that of foreign nationals identified as inadmissible, 15 percent were removed from the country (exceeding the 12-percent “target”). CBSA also failed to supply more meaningful numbers despite the Straight repeatedly requesting that information since November 26.
According to Byron Cruz, an organizer with the group Sanctuary Health, there are between 3,000 and 5,000 undocumented immigrants from Latin America living in Metro Vancouver.
Cruz said he has observed the same increase in CBSA enforcement noticed by NOII.
“I have been putting things on Facebook, telling people in Spanish: ‘Be careful if you go to the hospital; this can happen to you,’ ” he continued. “So we are making people aware of this.”
On December 9, the Straight reported that during the past two years, Fraser Health’s 12 Lower Mainland hospitals collectively referred about 500 patients to CBSA.
Cruz said that has undocumented immigrants struggling to access health-care services because of fears that a trip to the hospital can end with them being deported. He noted there is a high degree of public support for Syrian refugees and suggested that undocumented immigrants from Latin America aren’t so different.
“Most of them come from situations or from states in Mexico where the war on drugs has hit those provinces,” he explained. “The drug cartels in Mexico are worse than ISIS.”
Cruz recounted a recent trip to Guatemala where he heard stories similar to those of life under ISIS, which is also known as ISIL, Islamic State, and Daesh.
“Guys are beheading people, playing soccer with their heads,” he said. “People who are undocumented are afraid to go back to Mexico or to go back to Guatemala. It is a life-or-death situation there as well.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada before the end of the year, plus another 15,000 by the end of February 2016. In 2014, Canada accepted 665 refugees from Haiti, 655 from Colombia, 625 from Mexico, 190 from El Salvador, 165 from Honduras, and 105 from Guatemala.
Refugees admitted from Syria in 2014 numbered 1,290. That was up from 145 the previous year and 85 in 2012.
Daniel Tseghay is an advocate for refugees from the East African nation of Eritrea. He argued that undocumented immigrants are a symptom of larger problems with Canada’s system for processing refugees. Tseghay explained that many Latin Americans who enter B.C. under the temporary-foreign-workers program fear returning to their home country but do not have a legal route to remain in Canada.
“Their conditions are, to me, fundamentally the same as those of refugees,” Tseghay said. “Refugees and undocumented immigrants are not just fleeing the same things, but they are forced to flee sometimes in the same ways and forced to remain under the radar because of Canada’s border system.”
Vision Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs recently gave the Straight an update on the implementation of so-called sanctuary city policies designed to ensure that undocumented immigrants can access municipal services. He said staff have produced a draft document he hopes will go before council in the first half of 2016.
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This article originally appeared in print and online at Straight.com on December 16, 2015.