Mexican asylum seekers are targeting Canada

MONTREAL — Pedro Meraz says life in Colima, Mexico, has been like life in a war zone, with shootings, burning cars and dismembered bodies left outside of schools.

When his wife, Rocio Gonzalez, a 28-year-old lawyer who works with abused women, received death threats from a cartel and local authorities ignored their calls for help, they knew they had to leave.

“They knew where we lived and what car we drove,” said Meraz, 41, who taught at the University of Colima near the Pacific coast and about 300 miles (485 kilometers) west of Mexico City. “As I have a feeling that you will lose your life or one of your daughters, I do not mind starting from scratch.”

The family is part of a surge in the number of Mexicans applying for asylum in Canada this year. Because of Canada’s relative ease of seeking asylum compared to the United States, visa-free travel between Mexico and Canada, and the threat of violence at home, more than 8,000 Mexican nationals applied for refugee status in 2022. That is almost five times as many as in the previous year and more than twice as many as in 2019, the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated travel restrictions.

The vast majority of them fly into Montreal, where there are many direct flights to and from Mexico.

Among them is Viviana Tapia Gonzalez, a human rights activist and mother of four from Aguascalientes, about 425 kilometers northwest of Mexico City, who said she left Mexico in January after being attacked by the military. She said her work with the families of missing and murdered women and girls has made her a target.

“There were constant death threats,” she said. “I figured it would be the last option, just to be sure. I work for many causes and help many people. I didn’t want to stop helping, but I also need to protect (and) take care of myself.”

Montreal city skyline.
Canada has a much simpler asylum process than the US.

Tapia Gonzalez is living in a women’s shelter in Montreal while awaiting a decision on her asylum application, which she fears may be rejected.

If her claim is denied, she would not be alone.

In the first nine months of 2022, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, an independent court that investigates and decides asylum cases, has completed more than 2,700 applications from Mexican asylum seekers. Of these, 1,032 were accepted, 1,256 rejected; and the remaining 400+ were either abandoned, withdrawn or had other outcomes, said Christian Tessier, an IRB spokesman.

In Canada, applicants must meet the United Nations definition of a “convention refugee”, which means they are outside their home country and have a reasonable fear of being persecuted if they return because of their race, religion, or political opinion, or nationality or belonging to a social group. Otherwise, they must demonstrate that they need protection and cannot safely return to their home countries without risk of torture, cruel or unusual punishment, or death.

Despite the risk of rejection, the wave of Mexicans applying for refugee status in Canada continues.

Refugees are processed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after crossing the Canada-US border near Hemmingford, Quebec.
Refugees are processed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after crossing the Canada-US border near Hemmingford, Quebec.
AFP via Getty Images

The Welcome Collective, a Montreal-based charity that provides basic necessities to new asylum seekers, said half of the group’s current customers are from Mexico — a 300% increase from earlier this year.

“They had to flee because of violence and other humanitarian reasons. To find a better place for their children,” said Flavia Leiva, the group’s volunteering and social activities coordinator.

As a reason for the surge in applicant numbers, Leiva suggested that social media played a role.

“There were YouTubers and some videos on TikTok that talked about how easy it is to come to Canada,” she said.

At least one YouTube video released 10 months ago and created for a Mexican audience explains the Canadian immigration process in Spanish and has more than 4 million views.

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer speaks to migrants after they illegally crossed the Canada-US border near Hemmingford, Quebec.
In Canada, migrants must meet the United Nations’ definition of a “convention refugee.”
AFP via Getty Images

It has been harder for Mexicans to seek asylum in the United States since the pandemic began. A US health rule suspending the right to asylum to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is hitting Mexicans disproportionately hard. The Title 42 authority has been used to expel migrants more than 2.4 million times since its inception in March 2020.

Another attraction of Canada is that Mexicans no longer need a visa to travel to the country since the Canadian government lifted the requirement in late 2016.

Leiva also suggested that more Mexicans might choose to come to Canada over the United States because they think it’s safer.

“In the US, they’re locked in cages, the conditions aren’t that good,” Leiva said. “People don’t feel safe or protected.”

Meraz said he and his family decided Canada would offer them the best chance for a fresh start.

“My wife has been investigating the existence of international treaties protecting vulnerable individuals,” he said.

He pointed to Canada’s policies and regulations protecting women and children, as well as the country’s comparatively low crime rate.

“The US has never been on our minds as there is a lot of violence…attacks that are killing many innocent people,” Meraz said. “Canada statistically has a very low rate of violence and its quality of life is much better than in the US.”

He said his family chose Montreal over another Canadian city because of the logistics, although he has changed his mind.

“If you were to ask me now if I would choose another place, then maybe,” Meraz said, noting that he and his family now have to learn French.

Hayet Mohammed, who runs the French language program at Carrefour Solidarité Anjou, a nonprofit that helps newcomers settle in Quebec, said that not only is it easier to obtain refugee status in Canada, but there are also many resources for asylum seekers upon their arrival.

“They can work once they have their refugee status and are eligible for (French) courses offered by the (Quebec Department of Immigration) which gives them financial support and finally there are many job opportunities and they are not at risk of being unemployed too become,” said Mohammed.

“As a newcomer with my small family, there is no other country that offers immigrants so many facilities in terms of education, work and child support. All of these things drive people to leave their countries of origin and come here to live their lives thousands of miles from their families,” she said. Mexican asylum seekers are targeting Canada


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