Canada opens Montreal stadium to Haitian refugees fleeing US
MONTREAL – Reports here say as a surge of asylum-seeking Haitians fleeing the United States amid increasing deportation fears is overwhelming Canadian immigration agencies and has forced the opening of the massive Olympic Stadium in Montreal to temporarily house some of the refugees.
PRAIDA, a government-funded immigrant-support programme in Quebec, said it received 1 200 new requests from refugees in July, almost four times the normal monthly total, according to USA TODAY.
“It’s unheard of,” PRAIDA leader Francine Dupuis told the Montreal Gazette. “In 30 years, I’ve never seen this kind of volume or intensity.”
Dupuis said most of the new arrivals are Haitians who fear their temporary resident status in the US will be revoked, reported USA TODAY on Friday.
It said the dire concern began to emerge in May when the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would extend immigration protections for almost 60 000 Haitians living in the US for six more months – but urged them to start returning home.
Many came to the US in the aftermath of Haiti’s massive 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200 000 people and destroyed much of the French-speaking Caribbean nation, USA TODAY said.
Jean Dorméus, who led a youth group in Cap-Haitien, is among Montreal’s new arrivals.
He told the Gazette he fled Haiti six months ago when individuals threatened to kill him and his family.
He said his father was assassinated, so he and his mother and sister fled to the Dominican Republic, then to Mexico before crossing into San Diego, California, and asking for asylum, according to USA TODAY.
He said he was told his chances for asylum were slim and odds of deportation strong.
“It’s not good for us there now,” Dorméus told the Gazette. “It’s not safe in the US, and I can’t go back to Haiti.”
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre extended a warm welcome on Twitter: “The city of Montreal welcomes the Haitian refugees. You can count on our full cooperation.”
Dupuis told Radio Canada that about 150 people moved into the stadium Wednesday after a local YMCA and other options filled up.
She said the temporary stadium quarters can hold a few hundred more.
“We’re doing our best, but, obviously, there’s going to be a limit,” she said. “And we’re close to that limit.”
Canadian immigration officials weren’t able to say how many of the refugees making the border crossing from northern New York into Quebec are Haitian.
But Frantz Benjamin, the Haiti-born chairman of the Montreal City Council, believes at least half of the estimated 6 500 asylum seekers that have arrived since January are Haitians, prompted by US President Donald Trump’s hardline on immigration, reported the Miami Herald.
“It’s clear for us that the new politic of Donald Trump, the new president of the United States, has created a panic that today has a lot of people believing that their future isn’t in the United States and by ‘any means necessary,’ they will get to Canada,” Benjamin said. “But we want to make it clear, Canadian law hasn’t changed.”
The surge in Haitian asylum seekers coincides with the Trump administration’s decision in May to grant Haitians only six-month extension of Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, when it expired on July 22, the Herald said.
It said the special immigration status, given to Haiti after its devastating January 12, 2010 earthquake, has allowed 58 000 Haitians to legally work and live in the United States without fear of deportation.
In announcing the decision, John Kelly – then DHS secretary, now White House chief of staff – said he would revisit Haiti’s TPS designation ahead of the new January 22 expiration date to determine if another extension is warranted, but warned that Haitians should prepare to return home.
David Lapan, a DHS spokesman, said the agency “has not made any decision about the future status of TPS for Haiti”.
Haiti’s president and foreign minister have said in separate statements that they received assurances from US officials that TPS will be renewed but Lapan said Thursday, “There is no deal.
That uncertainty has fuelled a panic among Haitians, who are choosing to pack their bags and cross the US-Canada border, said Marleine Bastien, a Miami Haitian rights activist.
“Haitian families are in an impossible situation,” she told the Herald. “On the one hand, they’ve been living here, they made a life here, they are part of the American society. And yet when they apply for TPS extension, they are receiving this letter asking them to basically pack their bags.
“They know that Haiti is still recovering, and it’s impossible for them to return,” she added. “They are panicking and making this decision not to wait to be deported like criminals.”
Still, Bastien doesn’t condone the move – at least for those with TPS, according to the Herald.
She lamented that the Haitians have now traded in their legal status for one of undocumented refugee.
“Even if they obtain political asylum, it’s a long process at which time they will remain undocumented,” Bastien said. “Here, they are legal at least until January 2018.
“We are still fighting for an extension,” she added. “The administration has not said they will not renew. They should stay and fight.”
A coalition of immigrant support organizations launched a national campaign in Miami Monday to call for the temporary immigration protection of the Haitian and Central American community to be maintained. (CMC)