Immigration officers at Canadian-U.S. border crossings have been swamped since New Year's Day by a flood of hundreds of undocumented Pakistanis and Arabs attempting to claim refugee
status as the U.S. cracks down on illegal immigrants as part of its war on terrorism.
The surge at crossings in Quebec, Ontario, and, to a lesser extent, British Columbia, appears to reflect mounting fear among foreigners without legal status in the United States, particularly
those of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and North African origin, that they now face a greater risk of deportation from the United States.
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''It's too dangerous to stay; I'm too frightened by the mood in the U.S.,'' Tariq Mohammed, 27, a Pakistani told the Boston Globe. He said he had overstayed a student visa by seven years to take a succession of jobs - the last as assistant manager of a warehouse in Rhode Island. He arrived in Montreal yesterday and hopes Canada will grant him permanent asylum.
''Until 9/11, America had a tolerance for the people who work hard. Even if [we] were technically breaking some law of immigration or legal residency, no one cared,'' he said. ''But now, I am too afraid of arrest and deportation. America is so full of hatred and vengeance toward Muslims. So I come to Canada, a more humanitarian place.''
Under the ''smart border'' agreement reached by Ottawa and Washington last month, refugee claimants who arrive at Canadian entry points from the United States will, in most cases, automatically be turned back and forced to take their chances under the stricter U.S. system. No firm date has been set for implementing the agreement, but it could take effect as early as spring.
Similar dramatic increases in refugee applicants, most without passports or carrying questionable documents, occurred at crossings in Fort Erie, Ontario – near Buffalo – and Windsor,
Ontario, just across from Detroit.
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The U.S. Patriot Act, passed in 2001, has given the Justice Department broad powers to detain non-citizens on national
security grounds, to hold them in custody indefinitely, or deport them to their countries of origin. Other sweeping new laws and regulations require ''non-permanent'' U.S. residents from at least
20 nations in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa to register with federal authorities by the end of next month,
provoking fears of mass deportations.
Law enforcement officials in the United States and Canada confirm that as many as 19 individuals of Middle Eastern and Pakistani origin might have illegally entered the United States on
Dec. 24, not just the five who this week became the focus of an international manhunt led by the FBI.
The search was triggered by information gained during the breakup of a sophisticated document-forging ring in Ontario, according to law enforcement officials. The forgers appear to have provided the fake passports, false names, and photographs under which the individuals may have infiltrated the United States by way of Canada, possibly on a terror mission, although the FBI
stressed that it does not know their true identities or their reasons for coming to the United States.
Canada has been criticized by the United States, France, and other Western nations for generous immigration and refugee policies that have made it an easy hiding place, base of operations,
and fund-raising center for international terrorists.
Last month, court documents filed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service indicated that al-Qaida operatives disguised as working immigrants are positioned in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and other Canadian centers, maintaining frequent contact with similar ''sleeper cells'' in the United States.