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Pakistanis Fleeing U.S. Seek Refuge in Canada

Many who face arrest in America for overstaying visas have swamped shelters near the border.

March 15, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BURLINGTON, Vt. — An exodus of Pakistanis seeking to leave the United States has overwhelmed Canadian immigration authorities and swamped shelters, mosques, churches and aid agencies along the northern border.

The surge of people seeking safe haven is the latest result of Washington's new mandate that men from 25 mostly Muslim nations register their whereabouts with federal officials and be photographed, fingerprinted and submit to questioning.

On Friday, the major immigrant-aid group in northern Vermont ceased direct relief to new arrivals denied entry to Canada and warned of a "human calamity" if the Canadian government did not take action to relieve the backup of asylum seekers on the border, many of whom have been detained by U.S. immigration authorities.

"It's not unfair to call this an immigration earthquake," said Asad Hayauddin, spokesman at Pakistan's embassy in Washington. The embassy estimates that the registration plan could affect more than 20,000 Pakistanis in the United States -- by far the largest group impacted. "These people are really shook up."

Many of the Pakistanis seeking to enter Canada are in the United States illegally, having arrived on tourist or student visas and then staying on, in many cases for years. Others have legal status but have parents, spouses or children who are illegally in the country.

Faced with the requirement that they register by the end of next week, many Pakistanis have returned to their impoverished homeland, unloading houses and businesses in New York and other Northeastern states with large South Asian communities. But others from as far away as Utah have come to this largely rural region and tried to enter Canada, already home to a substantial Pakistani immigrant population.

"We've given up everything to come here," said Shabaz Ahmed, 29, who arrived in New York nine years ago with intentions of acquiring a college degree and becoming a pharmacist. He abandoned that plan years ago because he lacked money to continue his schooling. But he stayed on in this country although his visa was no longer valid.

"We just hope we can find something better for us over there," he said.

But the Canadian government says it is unable to process the surge in claims. Already this year, at least 1,665 Pakistanis fleeing the United States have applied for refugee status at Canadian crossings. There were 2,140 all of last year.

To relieve their backlog, the Canadians in January began sending hundreds of Pakistanis back across the border. The asylum seekers were given appointments to return to Canada, sometimes a month or more in the future. Meantime, hundreds were stranded in places like this snowbound and scenic city along frozen Lake Champlain.

"It's a question of facilities and a questions of resources," said Rene Mercier, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the immigration ministry. "If we have a normal flow, we can deal with it."

Unfortunately for the Pakistanis, when they arrive at U.S. border posts, those who do not have valid visas are subject to arrest by U.S. immigration officials as illegal entrants.

Malik, a 32-year-old laborer from New York who, like many of the immigrants, asked to be identified only by a single name, said his wife and three children, ages 3, 5 and 6, spent five days in his van in subzero temperatures while he was jailed by U.S. immigration authorities.

"My young ones still have colds they cannot get rid of," he said. "My wife is not the same."

"Do you think this [is] going to help America?" he asked.

Many refuge-seekers seemed baffled that U.S. immigration officials would arrest people intent on abandoning the country. But federal authorities say they have no choice but to detain illegal immigrants they encounter and check to see if they have criminal records and may present a security risk.

"For me, this is the first time I was ever arrested -- the first time I ever had handcuffs on," said Raja, 41, a giant of a man whose life traces the trajectory of the modern Pakistani diaspora.

An electrical engineer by training, Raja says he left his home city, near Lahore, 16 years ago and hopped from one Middle Eastern country to the next, finding whatever jobs were available. Three years ago, he arrived with his wife and three children in the Chicago area, hoping he had finally found a permanent home.

"I wanted my kids to be Americans, to have that opportunity," he said. "But maybe they will have a chance in Canada."

He and others face an uncertain future. Only about half of political asylum applicants in Canada are successful, meaning they can settle permanently in the country and eventually acquire citizenship.

Immigration advocates generally view the Canadian system as more liberal than its U.S. counterpart. Applicants are less likely to be detained and are eligible for free health care and other benefits.

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