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Canadians Divided Over Flood Of Refugees


Thousands of people have been leaving the U.S. to seek asylum in Canada. They are migrants and refugees living in the U.S., but they fear being detained because of President Trump's tough immigration policies. They say they feel safer in Canada. So far, they've been welcomed with open arms. But as Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio reports, that may be changing.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: To get a sense for just how different Canada's official attitude toward refugees and immigrants has been compared with the U.S., check out this moment with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming a family fleeing the Syrian civil war in December.


PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Seeing you here today - and I told myself I wouldn't get emotional about this. But of course...

MANN: Trudeau, who heads Canada's Liberal Party, was crying with joy, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has pushed to implement a travel ban on refugees from Syria and other predominantly Muslim countries, warning that they could pose a security risk. Trudeau has sent a very different message, tweeting that Canada welcomes everyone. After November's presidential election, thousands of people living in the U.S., some with expired visas, others as undocumented workers, others seeking refugee status, began using a loophole in international law to go north, seeking asylum in Canada. Trudeau signaled that they, too, are welcome.

And Mohammed Ahmed joined the exodus. He says he fled Pakistan to the U.S. because he feared violence in his home country. NPR couldn't confirm his immigration status in the U.S. But last month, he decided to leave New Jersey for Montreal, scrambling across the border into Canada on a snowy trail with his wife and two kids.

MOHAMMED AHMED: They're treating us very well. They give us the shelters. And I hope my children's future will be good - will be great in Canada.

MANN: He says he feels safer here, less likely to be sent back to Pakistan.

MANN: People who apply for asylum in Canada are automatically given protected status. They're rarely detained. Ahmed has been assigned a lawyer to help him navigate the refugee application process, which is expected to take about six weeks. During the wait, he's been given a health care card. His kids have been assigned to school. And he has a temporary work permit, so he's searching for a job.

But that welcoming tone appears to be shifting. With more than 25,000 people given permanent refugee status last year, politicians with Canada's Conservative Party say too many people are coming too fast. They warn that Canada's southern border is no longer secure. Ted Falk, a member of Parliament from the midwestern province of Manitoba, posted a video on Facebook blasting Prime Minister Trudeau.


TED FALK: Your message of welcome to Canada to refugees is just an open invitation for folks that want to illegally cross into Canada. Come to Canada. Come any way you want - legally, illegally, it doesn't seem to matter.

MANN: Falk says the loophole allowing people to come north from the U.S. and claim refugee status here should be closed. A Reuters poll released this week found that half of Canadians agree. They want people who enter the country illegally to be deported. Forty percent said asylum-seekers crossing from the U.S. might make Canada less safe.

MANN: This is Parliament Hill in Ottawa, seat of Canada's national government. On a bright spring day, Louise and Don Milligan are visiting from Red Deer, a small city in the western province of Alberta. When I asked them about people coming across the border, Louise shakes her head and says something I don't quite catch.


MANN: I'm sorry?

MILLIGAN: I said no.

MANN: No to more refugees and migrants. Her husband nods his head in agreement. Don Milligan says Canada, like the U.S., should slow the flow of newcomers.

DON MILLIGAN: There's no way to determine what are these people. Are they truly refugees? There's no way to know that.

MANN: Canadian officials do put asylum-seekers through a series of security screenings. And they're vetted to determine whether they face significant threats in their home countries. There have been no reported cases in Canada - or in the U.S. for that matter - of refugees or asylum-seekers committing acts of terror. Judy Hepner from British Columbia was also visiting Parliament Hill. She says taking in vulnerable people is part of Canada's identity.

JUDY HEPNER: I think we should welcome them. I'm of Mennonite heritage. My ancestors were harassed and chased around Europe. And they came to Canada because Canada welcomed them. How can I say that we don't let anybody else in? It makes no sense to me.

MANN: For now at least, Prime Minister Trudeau is sticking with his more open-door approach. Canada's Liberal government has signaled that most of the families crossing the border from the U.S., unless they have criminal records, will be allowed to remain and start new lives here.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann