Windsor bar steps up for Mexicans

WINDSOR - Local immigration lawyers have been putting in extra time working with members of the expatriate Mexican and Haitian communities who are fleeing a crackdown by United States authorities in south Florida.

It’s estimated upwards of 300 refugee claimants have arrived in Windsor over the past month, and city officials are scrambling to come up with shelter for the would-be citizens, as well as paying for their social assistance costs.

Those who seek admission to Canada as refugees are entitled to full Charter rights as well as to obtain services such as social assistance while they await a hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board.

As of early October, the city had paid out more than $400,000 in social assistance, and was making arrangements with London, Ont., to transfer some newcomers to accommodation there. Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis has repeatedly called on senior governments to bail the city out on costs, saying immigration is not a municipal matter and the city doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle the arrivals. So far only Queen’s Park has come through with funding.

Meanwhile, members of the area’s immigration and refugee bar have been handling some of the claimants. The newcomers must apply to Legal Aid Ontario so a lawyer can represent them in an application before the IRB.

Jacquie Rummel, director of the New Canadians Programs office at the Windsor YMCA, tells Law Times her office cannot offer legal advice to refugee claimants but does put them on the right track. “We simply refer them to legal aid, from where they’re then directed to a lawyer,” she said.

To apply for an IRB hearing, an applicant first has to obtain an opinion certificate from LAO. The certificate allows the applicant three hours “to spend time with a lawyer and get an opinion about the merits of their refugee appeal,” LAO spokesman Kristian Justesen says.

If the counsel thinks a client’s case has merit, a recommendation is made to LAO, which accepts or rejects it. If accepted, LAO issues a full refugee certificate covering legal coats leading to a hearing to determine if the applicant meets United Nations Convention status.

If the applicant is turned down, Justesen said LAO will foot the bill for an appeal “on a case-by-case assessment.” But Justesen says certificates generally “aren’t open-ended” in terms of LAO funding. “There’s a fixed amount of time associated with the certificate,” he says, such as 16 hours for a full hearing and eight hours for an expedited hearing.

In Windsor, John Rokakis, who has the most experience among area legal practitioners in handling refugee claims, has also taken on the most claimants during this influx - well over 20. Rokakis said several other lawyers have taken on numbers like two or four each.

Still, those are small figures given the relatively mass influx of Mexicans, and more recently Haitians. Rokakis didn’t seem to know why. “It’s hard to say; we’ve been hearing in the papers there are 300 in the city,” he said. “It’s hard to say whether everybody’s applying for legal aid or whether some people don’t qualify for legal aid and then have hired lawyers on their own. But I haven’t been retained privately by anyone.”

News reports indicate the Mexicans, who were allegedly working illegally in the United States, traveled to Windsor and other Canadian border points after receiving false information from unscrupulous immigrant organizations charging fees and telling them that Canada would easily welcome them as citizens.

Rokakis says most of the Mexicans he’s seen are “a little naive” and “were under the impression that they’d get here, everything would be fine, they’d be given paperwork, and they really wouldn’t have to worry too much.”

Refugee claimants have to meet criteria in ss. 96 and 97 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act on the grounds a claimant fears persecution in their native country on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a social group or having a political opinion, and whose removal to that country would subject them to danger, such as torture or cruel and unusual punishment.

But Rokakis says his Mexican clients have unique situations; one feared persecution due to a “sexual
orientation” issue.

“Most of them fear criminal elements in Mexico,” he says, acknowledging that might not be enough for a refugee claim to succeed. “But others do fear the police because they’ve had bad experiences with police in their home town. Some have tried to move to another part of Mexico, then they’ve had problems with police there. Because of corruption the police basically were trying to shake them down, and then you see brute force to get what they want to.”

Still, Rokakis figures only “about a third” will get full LAO certificates.
The Haitians are in a different situation. Rokakis believes all will obtain LAO certificates “because the situation in Haiti is much worse than it is in Mexico.” He says the Haitians had been tuned down for asylum in the US and therefore faced deportation to their home country. Rokakis, who has worked with Haitians in the past, says he has never seen LAO turn down an application from them.

He says Haitians began arriving in Windsor in early October,  largely, he believes, after news stories about Mexicans seeking asylum. “The feeling I got from the Haitians was that the border was going to close because of all the publicity respecting the Mexicans.”

In the case of the Mexicans, Windsor’s Mayor Francis, a lawyer, has called for refugee board hearings to be expedited and held in the city so those who are not legitimate refugees, but are here for economic reasons, can be removed from Canada and not drain municipal and financial resources.

That opinion is echoed by well-known Windsor immigration counsel Andrew Porter, who is not handling refugee claims but whose practice deals in business immigration. “I’m sympathetic to their plight, as any decent Canadian would be,” he says. “But it would be far more appropriate if we could apply the resources to adjudicate them more immediately when they come in.”

Marion Overholt, a staff lawyer at the city’s legal aid clinic, Legal Assistance of Windsor, and a welfare rights activist, says that, especially in light of many criticisms by the public about the Mexicans taking away services from Canadians, she will be monitoring how the new arrivals are treated while collecting social assistance and in obtaining housing to ensure “they aren’t exposed to discrimination.”

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