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World

Since Trump's Election, Canada's Refugee System Is Overloaded

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The uncertainty for immigrants in the United States is prompting more to cross the border into Canada. The latest people unsure of their future are about 200,000 Salvadorans who are in the U.S. under temporary protected status, which the Trump administration could extend or not today. Haitians and others have faced similar moments, and the net result is testing the U.S.'s northern neighbor, which historically welcomes refugees, as Lorne Matalon reports from Montreal.

LORNE MATALON, BYLINE: Here's a recent bulletin from Canada's national public network, the CBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBC NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Canada is bracing for a possible new wave of asylum-seekers.

MATALON: Among the new arrivals is Agathe St. Preux, a Haitian. I met her as she shared lunch with other Haitians at a cafe. She says she lived in Miami for 12 years, but last summer, as signs signaled the end of a temporary U.S. residency program for Haitians, St. Preux crossed into Canada illegally and made her way to Montreal.

AGATHE ST. PREUX: It's like I breathe better. Life is quiet here, and people are kind.

MATALON: Canada has historically valued the skills and money that many migrants bring in. But Canada's refugee system's become overloaded since the election of President Donald Trump.

DAVID BERGER: We've got a backlog today of maybe 30,000 claims, whereas about two years ago, the backlog was maybe 10 or 15,000.

MATALON: That's David Berger, an immigration lawyer and former member of Canada's Parliament. New arrivals are supposed to get an immigration hearing within 60 days. That isn't happening. Berger says there aren't enough immigration judges, known in Canada as decision-makers.

BERGER: We believe the government has to appoint more decision-makers. A hundred and twenty decision-makers is just not enough.

MATALON: One national poll suggests 4 in 10 Canadians believe the country is taking in too many refugees. Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has been criticized for a tweet he sent out last January saying, to those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you. Trudeau says immigrants benefit Canada culturally and economically.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: ...That being welcoming and open is a source of strength and...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

MATALON: In 2017, Canada took in 43,500 refugees, many who arrive by walking illegally into Canada. That number will rise to more than 50,000 by 2020, part of what Canada's ruling Liberal Party calls the most ambitious immigration levels in recent history. The fate of refugees has also complicated the Canada-U.S. diplomatic relationship at times. Trudeau's tweet was sent out the same day the Trump administration moved to ban travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations. Marjorie Villefranche heads Maison d'Haiti - Haiti House - a resource center for refugees.

MARJORIE VILLEFRANCHE: I think that the tension is, how can a country like Canada, you know, admit that the United States is not a safe country? Politically, it's very difficult to - you know, to say that.

MATALON: Canada does a lot to at least help refugees get started, even before a final decision on whether or not they can stay permanently. When refugees arrive, they get a monthly stipend - around $650. Their children can go to school, and like all Canadians, they get healthcare. Philip Oxhorn's a political scientist at McGill University.

PHILIP OXHORN: There's undoubtedly overcrowding, but the state has done as much as one might expect, given the huge relative increase in the numbers of people coming.

MATALON: Oxhorn says Canada is wrestling with those numbers. But given the government's plan to increase immigration levels, he expects the country will continue to value the place that refugees hold in Canada's multi-ethnic tapestry. For NPR News, I'm Lorne Matalon in Montreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN SONG, "MISPLACED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.