Refusing the Refugees Taking the Trade: Canada's Unspoken Policy on Mexican Immigrants
Day, Ancela, Canadian Dimension
IN January 2009 I was translating for a small family from Morelia, Mexico in preparation for their refugee hearing, rhythmically slipping back and forth from English to Spanish. But then I stopped abruptly, unwilling to translate the lawyer's words: "This will be a tough case to win."
Cristina Mendez, the mother of the family, was already distraught and cold from traveling through Halifax streets on our less than ideal public transit system. Morelia is a town she describes as hot, dry, and about the size of this port city, but with three times the population. She liked living there. Her extended family lived nearby, and she and her husband Jorge owned a small grocery business in a sprawling market complex until one day narco-traffickers decided their store would make a perfect store-front to mask drug operations. When the Mendezes refused to participate in the shady business deal, their lives were threatened and they suffered physical assaults that have left psychological scars.
The Mendez family fled to Canada when they couldn't take it anymore, landing in Nova Scotia last August. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugee claimants in Canada from Mexico increased by 33 percent in 2008. This makes Mexico the top source country of asylum seekers in Canada, surpassing Haiti--the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and Columbia--the locale of a 36-year-long civil war. About 9,400 Mexicans sought asylum in Canada last year. However, the percentage of Mexican cases accepted by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) was a dismal 11 percent, compared to 78 percent of Columbian claims and 42 percent of Haitians. This means that over fifteen hundred Mexican refugee claimants were turned away last year.
According to staff at the Atlantic Refugee and Immigrant Services Society (ARISS), a refugee and immigrant support centre in Nova Scotia, many Mexican civilians have become caught in the crossfire of narco-traffickers, who pay off the police and the government to buy control of entire regions. In most of the Mexican cases they are familiar with, claimants are fleeing extortion, including threats of violence from criminal gangs linked to narco-trafficking. Some of the civilians caught in the web of drugs and cops flee the country to protect their lives and families, which has led to the influx of Mexican refugee claimants in Canada. Currently, Mexicans don't need visas to visit Canada.
Getting to the Source
In order to receive refugee protection status through the IRB, claimants must demonstrate in a determination hearing that they fear persecution at home and that their government cannot protect them. Mexico, however, is not in the middle of a war or occupation. Paradoxically, Mexico is the top destination for millions of Canadian vacationers seeking sand, sun, and tequila, and this newly industrialized country is one of Canada's top trading partners--a relationship consecrated in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While NAFTA was intended to "open borders" for economic growth across North America, it hit the Mexican economy hard. Mexico wasn't always a haven for drug traffickers, nor was it the source country for so many asylum seekers. According to UNHCR statistics, in 1993 there were only 200 refugee claimants from Mexico in Canada. The number of asylum seekers has multiplied by ten since then, paralleling the rise of narco-trafficking and criminal gangs in Mexico. And, while Canada is seeing the effects of the narco-trafficking boom through the spike in migration and recent cross-border violence, Canada is complicit in its origins.
In No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, Justin Akers Chacon argues that the illegal economy in Mexico boomed after NAFTA was signed--local industries were displaced by foreign-owned manufacturers and small Mexican farms and businesses were put out of commission. …