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Mexicans find a rough welcome mat in Canada

by ALAN FREEMAN Wednesday, Aug. 08, 2007 at 12:42 PM

Mexicans find a rough welcome mat in Canada Tourists, being denied entry in increasing numbers, report harsh, insensitive, even racist treatment by Canadian border officials

With a report from Marina Jiménez

August 6, 2007

OTTAWA -- Claudia Molina used to think Canada was a welcoming place.

But that was before the 32-year-old psychology graduate from Mexico

City attempted to travel to Vancouver last year.

Ms. Molina, who works in the human-resources department of

accounting firm KPMG in Mexico City, arrived at Vancouver

International Airport in February of 2006 for a two-week visit with

her boyfriend, an English teacher she met when she studied in

Vancouver in 2005.

But as she came through immigration, she was quickly taken aside,

suspected of trying to enter Canada to work illegally, even though

she had a return ticket to Mexico and several thousand dollars in

cash. Her luggage was searched and she was hauled off to a detention

centre where her coat, shoes and personal effects were taken away.

By the next morning, Ms. Molina was back on a plane to Mexico,

angry, confused and humiliated.

"Nobody told me anything," she said in an interview from Mexico

City. "They treated me like I was a criminal. ... I didn't do

anything to make them do that to me."

Print Edition - Section Front

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Ms. Molina's case is part of a trend. Faced with a spike in refugee

claims from Mexicans - the country is now the top source of asylum

seekers in Canada - Canadian authorities have been refusing entry to

increasing numbers of Mexican citizens attempting to visit the

country as tourists.

Those turned away complain of harsh, insensitive and even racist

treatment from Canadian officials, a view shared by the Mexican

embassy in Ottawa. Increasingly irritated by the incidents, Mexican

President Felipe Calderon is expected to raise the issue when he

meets Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a North American summit this

month in Montebello, Que.

Mauricio Guerrero, a spokesman for the Mexican embassy, said his

country recognizes Canada's sovereign right to reject or accept

Mexicans intending to visit the country. But he said, "We don't

agree with the way those rejected citizens have been treated.

Sometimes they are handcuffed. Sometimes they are put in police

stations. Once they are rejected, they are not treated properly."

Although it will not comment on individual cases, the Canada Border

Services Agency denies any charges of discrimination, saying it

is "committed to ensuring that all travellers are treated in a fair

and equitable manner."

An agency spokesman added that when dealing with travellers under

arrest or detention, it has to deal with "the real issue of

potential risk to public safety and security, as well as risk of


For the Mexicans, the issue is seen as a counterbalance to

persistent Canadian complaints over the danger tourists face from

gang violence and drugs, exacerbated by what is perceived as

inefficient and sometimes corrupt policing.

Magaly Yanez is convinced that the Canadian officer who turned her

away at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport last

year was racist. It was 6 p.m. on July 22, 2006, and Ms. Yanez, a 25-

year-old hotel receptionist from Cancun, had arrived from Mexico to

visit a friend who had just had a baby.

"I bought an open ticket because I wasn't sure how long I was going

to stay," said Ms. Yanez, who studied business administration in

university and said she had ,000 in cash with her but no credit

cards. The immigration officer was suspicious of the young woman's

intentions and accused her of coming to Canada to look for work.

"He told me that my passport was not valid," she recalled. "But my

passport was okay." As for the allegation that she intended to work

in Canada illegally, Ms. Yanez protests: "I have my family here [in

Mexico.] I have work here. We Mexicans [do] not only travel to work.

We travel to visit people, make friends, whatever.

"Then they arrested me. I had never been arrested before in my

life. ... I felt humiliated because they opened my bags. They

treated me like a bad person." After a night in detention, Ms. Yanez

was put on an 8 a.m. flight back to Mexico City, her vacation ruined

and the hundreds of dollars spent on her ticket lost.

She complained to the Canadian embassy in Mexico about her

treatment, but said she never heard back.

At the core of the problem is the fact that Mexican citizens are not

required to obtain visas to enter Canada. That leaves the

responsibility to officials at the port of entry to decide whether a

Mexican arriving in Canada is there for a legitimate reason, such as

study or vacation, or whether he or she is simply trying to slip in

as a tourist to work illegally.

Canadian officials deny that Mexicans are being singled out. But

they do point out that Mexicans have constituted the largest source

of refugee claimants entering the country every year since 2003. In

2006, 3,419 Mexicans claimed refugee status.

These would-be refugees say they are subject to danger if they

return home to Mexico for a variety of reasons, from sexual

orientation to fear of Mexican criminal gangs. But their success

rate is low: Only 13 per cent of claimants who had hearings in the

first six months of 2007 were accepted as legitimate refugees,

according to Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board.

In the past, when refugee claims have surged from other countries,

including the Czech Republic, Portugal and Chile, the government has

slapped on visa restrictions. But with Canada's close trade and

political ties with Mexico and the Harper government's efforts to

reinvigorate its ties with Latin America, any imposition of visa

requirements is viewed as a diplomatic impossibility.

"It would be drastic to impose a visa," said one senior Canadian

official, noting that 200,000 Mexicans a year come to Canada on

vacation and 10,000 students come to study here annually.

"They would not consider visas," said Richard Kurland, a Vancouver

immigration lawyer. "You can't do it. It won't work."

But Mr. Kurland said there is clearly a problem involving young

Mexicans coming into Canada purportedly on vacation but with the

intention of staying on. "It's the ones who are higher-educated, who

figure they can earn some Canadian cash and remit it home or try it

out for a year. Word has got out that Canada is loose on enforcement

in the cash underground economy," he said.

The Canada Border Services Agency insisted that admission to Canada

is decided on a case-by-case basis, saying it was up to the

traveller "to satisfy the border services officer that they are

coming to Canada for a temporary purpose."

"Our border services officers consider several factors when

determining admissibility into Canada, including involvement in

criminal activity, in human-rights violations, in organized crime,

security, health or financial reasons," said a spokesman for the


But for Mexicans such as Armando Andria, a 25-year-old systems

engineer who was detained and sent back to Mexico in April of last

year after flying into Toronto on vacation, the experience changed

his view of Canada.

"I thought Canada was a friendly country, un amigo," he told The

Globe and Mail. "I had no idea they treated people in this way."

On arrival at Lester B. Pearson International Airport, he was

immediately accused of wanting to live permanently in Toronto.

"They accused me of lying and said I had no plans to return home,"

Mr. Andria said. "They went through my suitcase and said I had a lot

of clothing for a 15-day trip. They even went through all my

toiletries looking for drugs. Finally, two immigration detention

officers arrived, handcuffed me and took me to a detention centre,

just like I was a criminal.

"I asked to be permitted to make a call and they wouldn't let me,"

Mr. Andria continued. "In the morning, two officials came back, told

me I wasn't allowed to enter Canada and must return to Mexico. They

handcuffed me, put me in a van and took me back to the airport. I

left at 8 p.m. that night on a flight back to Mexico City.

"I lost my vacation time and my money. I would have expected this

from the U.S. but never from Canada. It would almost be better if

Canada had a visa requirement for Mexicans. At least then the rules

would be clearer."

Ms. Molina, the psychologist who was sent home when she tried to

visit Vancouver, has since found another way of getting together

with her Canadian boyfriend. He moved to Mexico City to work and be

with her. But she still hesitates to try her luck with Canada again.

"If we go visit his family," she said, "I'm afraid they'll do the

same to me again."

Coming to Canada


Even as tourism from the United States plummets - in part because of

the higher value of the Canadian dollar - Mexican travel to Canada

continues to grow, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission.

In 2006, 210,000 Mexican tourists came to Canada, up 11.2 per cent

over the previous year, and the number of visitors is expected to

climb by another 10 per cent this year.

Canadian tourism officials have targeted Mexico by underwriting a

series of promotional visits by Mexican journalists and celebrities

to locales ranging from Whistler to Quebec City.

Also, air links between the two countries have been expanding. In

addition to scheduled flights between Mexico City and Montreal,

Toronto and Vancouver, charter operators are offering summer flights

to Edmonton from Mexico City and Guadalajara.

Refugee claims

Refugee claims from Mexicans have also increased. Citizenship and

Immigration reports 3,419 Mexican adults claimed refugee status in

2006, more than four times the 800 claims made in 1997. Mexico has

been the top source of refugee claimants since 2003, when it moved

ahead of China.

But few Mexicans are successful: Only 13 per cent of Mexican claims

heard by the Refugee Board in the first six months of 2007 were

accepted, compared with 66 per cent of Haitian claims and 68 per

cent of Colombian claims. The political situation in those countries

is considered more volatile than Mexico's, and so more dangerous for

returning refugees.

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