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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."
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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 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
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