Roxham Road, a notorious unofficial border crossing, might be closed but as advocates predicted, asylum seekers have found another way to enter Canada in record numbers: Montreal’s Trudeau Airport.
Arturo Nava is fresh off a flight from Mexico City, ready to start a new life in Canada.
The petrochemical engineer came on a tourist visa, but as soon as he landed in Montreal, he requested refugee status.
“It’s because of the situation in Mexico,” Nava told Global News, luggage and asylum papers in hand.
He says there is a lot of talk in Mexico about how supportive Canada is to refugees, though he admits he didn’t have much information about what the process fully entails.
“Nervous to be honest. I didn’t know if I was going to be deported, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.
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Nava is one of thousands of Mexicans who are coming to Quebec to claim refugee status.
Immigration Canada numbers show that in 2023, Quebec processed a total of 25,755 asylum claims at the airport. That’s more than double the amount of 2022, which was 11,665. In general, asylum requests in Quebec have exploded in the past two years, according to the province’s immigration ministry.
In 2021, Quebec received 10,085 requests, compared to 59,740 in 2023.
Most of the requests come from people of Mexican citizenship. In 2021 there were 1,335 requests from Mexican citizens. In 2023, the government received 15,210 requests. A high number of people with Haitian or Colombian citizenship also requested refugee status in the province.
Those who land at Trudeau Airport, and have nowhere to stay after requesting refugee status, are sent to a shelter run by the Regional Program for the Settlement and Integration of Asylum Seekers known as PRAIDA.
It’s where Mexican citizen Lizbeth Valencia has been staying at for a few days. She says it has been harder than she thought it would be.
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“Much harder. Much, much harder,” Valencia said.
A few blocks away from PRAIDA’s shelter is The Welcome Collective. Advocates at the non-profit say they’re working with more asylum seekers like Nava and Valencia coming through the airport.
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Melissa Claisse says many are afraid to ask for status at the airport and end up doing so at a later time.
“Which means that they’re going to have a really hard to find a lawyer to take their case and they also, in most cases, won’t have access to the shelters that are provided by the federal and provincial governments,” Claisse said.
“They’re often sleeping in general homeless population shelters or even on the streets, it really creates a lot of precarity. Manufactured precarity. ”
Claisse says work permits for asylum seekers also don’t come right away, pushing many to request financial assistance.
For the first 15 days of 2024, Quebec’s labour ministry says there were 9,840 requests. That’s an average of 656 per day. An estimated 30.2 per cent come from asylum seekers.
Claisse says the government can avoid that situation by issuing work permits upon arrival, just like it has done for Ukrainian refugees.
“That’s going to mean that so many families, thousands of families won’t have to go on welfare in the first place,” Claisse said.
Federally-funded assistance to find employment would also help, she says.
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Quebec’s premier Francois Legault penned a letter to Justin Trudeau about his concerns over the growing number of asylum seekers coming to Quebec, including those of Mexican origin.
“Mexican nationals represent a growing proportion of the asylum seekers arriving in Quebec, the possibility of entering Canada from Mexico without a visa certainly explains part of the flow of asylum seekers,” Legault wrote on his letter made public January 17th.
The federal government lifted visa requirements for Mexican nationals in 2018. Currently, a Mexican national only needs to apply for a $7 electronic travel authorization (eTA) to enter the country.
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The government of Canada’s website states that “applying for an eTA is easier than you may think. It’s a simple online process that takes a few minutes to complete.” The site goes on to say that most applicants get their eTA approved in minutes and you only need your passport and a credit card to pay the fee.
The federal government is now considering imposing visas or other measures for Mexican citizens.
Quebec claims to be “close to the breaking point”
In his letter, Legault also asked Trudeau for more help to care for the influx of asylum seekers.
“We are very close to the breaking point due to the excessive number of asylum seekers arriving in Quebec month after month. The situation has become unsustainable,” Legault wrote.
When asked if Montreal has reached a breaking point too, Valérie Plante said she wouldn’t focus on numbers “because it’s always a fight” but admitted the city is facing challenges with housing when welcoming asylum seekers.
“What I question is how do we make sure we can have, we can create more housing opportunities, to me that’s really what we need,” Plante told Global News last Wednesday.
A few days after Plante’s comments, Canada’s immigration minister Marc Miller pledged more money to help municipalities and provinces.
On Jan. 31, Miller announced Quebec will receive $100 million of the total investment of $362 million.
Miller announces $362.4M to help with refugee housing crisis: ‘We owe it to Canadians’