It begins, as it often does, with a phone call in the night, a desperate voice straining to be heard over the transatlantic crackle and hiss. In the 1980s, as war raged in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the caller was likely to be speaking Spanish. In the 1990s, especially after the Rwandan genocide, Swahili and Lingala were more common.
These days the caller is likely to be calling from Canada and speaking French -- perhaps a Haitian-born Quebecois whose brother, aunt or cousin has been stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol and is being held in the Franklin County Jail in St. Albans. Oftentimes, the voice is that of a sympathetic border guard in Highgate Springs or Champlain, New York, calling to say, "Patrick? We have someone who needs a place to stay tonight."
For refugees on the road to a new life, crossing the border into a new homeland is akin to re-experiencing birth. And if they're lucky, Patrick Giantonio is the midwife who helps them through the delivery. This quiet man with piercing blue eyes, a soothing voice and a thick, Gandalf-like beard is the executive director of the Montpelier-based nonprofit group, Vermont Refugee Assistance (VRA). He knows how to make things go smoothly and what to do when things go wrong. And when it comes to immigration issues, things can go very wrong.
Since 1993, Giantonio has worked for this two-person operation with a shoestring budget that each year helps hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers navigate the complex and often bewildering bureaucracies of the U.S. and Canadian immigration systems -- often from the inside of a jail cell. In the coming months his job will only get tougher. This week, while many Americans are making pilgrimages of their own, reuniting with family and friends to celebrate the arrival of America's first refugees at Plymouth Rock, Giantonio is going head-to-head with the Office of Homeland Security over a new immigration treaty between the United States and Canada.
If approved, the pact will have serious implications for the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who pass through the United States each year on their way to Canada. Although the White House says the agreement will improve national security and cut down on abuses of the asylum process, refugee advocates on both sides of the border -- and some members of Congress -- are saying that the treaty will create a host of humanitarian and security nightmares along the world's safest international border.
The Safe Third Country Agreement, as it's called, is part of Homeland Security Advisor Tom Ridge's 30-point "smart border" declaration agreed upon last December by Canadian Deputy Prime Minister John Manley. Written in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the accord is largely non-controversial and beneficial to both nations. It includes such provisions as sharing intelligence on high-risk air passengers, setting uniform standards for fingerprints and iris scans on travel documents, and creating "fast-lane" security systems for low-risk commercial truck traffic.
One provision, however, alarms refugee groups: Asylum-seekers who travel to Canada via the United States -- about 15,000 per year -- would instead be required to file their asylum claims in the U.S. Most international flights to North America stop here, but refugees don't necessarily want to stay.
Canada's treatment of refugees has long been more humane than that of the U.S. When asylum-seekers arrive at the Canadian border, they are immediately paroled into the country until their case can be heard. Unlike the U.S. system, which forbids asylum-seekers from working for six months after they file their application, Canadian "asylees" can look for housing, find work and become eligible for health care and other government assistance. In short, their new lives begin right away.
"In the U.S. it's a whole different ballgame," explains Giantonio. "Here, you're given housing, but it's in a jail." Since 1996, when the United States toughened its immigration laws, anyone who arrives here with falsified documents faces mandatory detention. Each year, Giantonio and Michele Jenness, VRA's legal services coordinator, work with 120 to 150 such detainees. They're among the 22,000 non-citizens in jails across the country waiting for their cases to wind through the labyrinthine immigration system, a process that can take months, if not years.
In the United States, asylum seekers get one shot at having their case heard, which means it must be rock-solid. Stories abound about asylum-seekers whose applications are denied for seemingly minor reasons. The problems may stem from a sloppy immigration attorney -- asylees have the right to legal representation, but the U.S. government won't pay for it. Or an asylee may end up appearing before an intransigent immigration judge. One judge in the Office of Immigration Review in Boston is notorious for denying asylum claims. Last year he rejected 97 percent of the cases that came before him.
Many refugees go to Canada because they know their case stands a better chance of being approved there, especially women who are fleeing gender persecution. Or Canada may simply be where they want to live. They might be French speakers, planning to reunite with family members already living in Quebec or Montreal; they might want to join a community of other immigrants from their home country who can lend them emotional and financial support. If the Safe Third Country Agreement is approved, however, Giantonio fears those choices will no longer be theirs to make.
The Safe Third Country Agreement isn't a great deal for the U.S. either. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) would have thousands more asylum cases on its hands. According to INS figures, more than 64,000 new asylum applications were filed in the United States in fiscal year 2002, adding to a backlog of more than 300,000 cases pending from the year before. Refugee groups and some lawmakers, especially Vermont's congressional delegation, are troubled by what this might mean for security along the northern border.
"We are concerned that the proposed agreement would have the unintended consequence of encouraging desperate asylum-seekers to evade ports of entry and cross our borders illegally," writes Senator Jim Jeffords, who, along with Represent-ative Bernie Sanders, voiced opposition to the agreement in a Sept. 25 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell. "We fear that the contemplated change in policy may produce a human-smuggling industry on our very own Vermont border." Senators Patrick Leahy, Ted Kennedy (D - Mass.) Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D -Texas) have all penned similar letters to Powell.
During an October 16 hearing in the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, which Giantonio describes as "a bit bizarre," VRA found an unlikely ally in an organization that's usually a foe. In written testimony, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington, D.C.-based organization known for its hard-line stance against both legal and illegal immigration, argued that this agreement will create more national security problems than it purports to solve, at a time when the INS and the Border Patrol are undergoing drastic reorganization in the new Department of Homeland Security: "To unnecessarily add to the burden of the agency during such a critical period, especially when the increased workload would include elements of national security protection, would not only be unwise, it would be negligent."
Astoundingly, an official with the INS admitted during the hearing that a possible outcome of the agreement could be that thousands of desperate asylum-seekers will try to enter Canada illegally. "Here you have the agency that's supposed to be upholding immigration laws getting ready to sign an agreement that's going to exacerbate the smuggling problem on the northern border," says Giantonio. "Anyone who has looked at this agreement closely has come away saying, 'This is a really bad idea.'"
The treaty appears to be a fix in need of a problem. From all accounts, immigration experts say the current system functions quite well as it is -- albeit slowly -- allowing asylum-seekers to decide for themselves which country they want to apply to. Abuses of the asylum process, so-called "asylum-shopping," in which people go from country to country seeking asylum until they're granted entry, are rare. When asked how the United States would benefit from the deal, a State Department official told Seven Days that it's "not really appropriate" to judge this agreement on its own merits, but it should be seen within the context of a larger accord to improve overall border security.
Jack Martin, special projects director for FAIR, says that Ottawa has been lobbying unsuccessfully for this treaty for years in an effort to reduce its asylum caseload. This time, he suggests, the pact is being offered as a bargaining chip in exchange for Canada's cooperation on U.S. counterterrorism efforts. And that, he says, is absurd logic and "unworthy of consideration."
"The United States should not, in effect, be blackmailed into taking an agreement that is not in its national interest," he says.
Nevertheless, a report last weekend in the Toronto Star suggests that the Safe Third Country Agreement could be signed as early as December 5. Although it would not take effect for at least three to six months, refugee advocates and relief agencies along the northern border are already preparing for the worst.
"You have to imagine that the word is going out around the world that if you want to go to Canada, basically the door is shutting," says Giantonio.
He knows all about border crossings. In 1980, while traveling in Africa, Giantonio found himself in the midst of a famine and decided to do something about it. So in 1984 he began walking from one end of the continent to the other, Kenya to Cameroon, to draw international attention to hunger and poverty issues. Five years and some 4000 miles later, Giantonio began to see America -- and himself -- in an entirely new light. "When I went to Africa, I thought I was going to save Africa," he recalls. "After landing on the continent and starting my walk, what I really began to see was that Africa was saving me."
Giantonio isn't just speaking figuratively. While traveling from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Central African Republic, he was arrested for making an unauthorized border crossing in a dugout canoe and detained by the military for two days. Had it not been for the local villagers who secured his release, Giantonio's detention could have been much worse.
"I think in many ways I'm doing this work to pay back a lot of the kindness and very tangible assistance that I received while I was in Africa," he says.
For Captain Traci Cregan with the Salvation Army in Plattsburgh, the call came at about 11:15 on a Tuesday night last June. A U.S. Border Patrol agent had picked up 12 refugees at the Canadian border and they had nowhere to stay. Could the Cregans put them up for the night? Although her mission isn't set up as a shelter, Cregan's husband Dennis drove to the border to get the asylum-seekers while she gathered whatever extra linens and blankets they had in the house.
By the second night, the Salvation Army was housing 20 to 25 people; by the fifth night, 67. Within two weeks, 84 refugees from Uruguay, Peru, Turkey, Russia, the Palestinian West Bank and elsewhere were living in the building. All had heard rumors that Canada was changing its immigration laws and feared that the door would close on them. In fact, the change in legislation affected only a small fraction of Canada's immigrant population. Still, it was enough to cause a rush for the border before the new law took effect June 28.
Within weeks, ports of entry all along the Canadian border were inundated with refugees. At one point, Canadian immigration (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, or CIC) in Lacolle had more than 100 people waiting in its office to file asylum claims. Instead of the usual 300 cases per month, the office was scrambling to process more than 1250.
Ronald Blanchet, director of CIC at Lacolle/Philipsburg, recalls that he had no choice but to start sending people back into the United States with appointments to have their asylum claims processed several weeks later. Sensitive to the differences between the two immigration systems, Blanchet gave preference to those whose U.S. visas were set to expire or who were at risk of being detained by the INS.
In the United States, asylum-seekers have up to one year to file a claim, after which they are considered "out-of-status" and subject to arrest. Even if they intend to seek asylum in Canada, they are automatically entered into the U.S. immigration system, which seriously complicates their asylum claim.
"In June it was not a problem because the rumor that the border would be closed by the end of June was not true," says Blanchet. "It was no problem to ask people to wait on the U.S. side until we could process them." However, if the Safe Third Country Agreement is approved, Blanchet can't say whether he will have the same amount of discretion. In effect, sending asylum-seekers back into the United States could effectively eliminate their chances of ever applying for asylum in Canada.
As for the Salvation Army in Plattsburgh, Cregan says that the June experience "wasn't bad in any way, shape or form. It was actually quite a wonderful experience. It was very intense but very rewarding." After overcoming language and cultural barriers, the refugees soon became a close-knit group, cooking their own meals, organizing cleaning details, taking language classes in English and French, and enforcing a self-imposed curfew. They're even planning a reunion at the Salvation Army in Montreal next month.
Still, Cregan and other relief agencies have no illusions about what a refugee crisis on a larger scale might look like, especially if it hits in the dead of winter. "We are anticipating 10 times what we got last time," says Cregan, who met in August with a representative from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. "This time we cannot do it alone."
Aside from looming concerns over human trafficking and inundated social services, refugee advocates fear the U.S.-Canada agreement has larger and more ominous ramifications. Although the State Department insists there are no plans in the works to sign "safe third country" treaties with other nations, refugee advocates believe it sets a dangerous precedent in the hemisphere. In a somewhat parallel situation, the United States is helping Mexico fortify its southern border and develop its own asylum adjudication system. The belief is that once the Mexican asylum system is in place, the United States will begin turning around refugees who have traveled here by way of Mexico.
"The idea is not so far-fetched," said Bill Frelick, director of the Amnesty Interna-tional USA refugee program, in testimony before the House subcommittee hearing in October. "The United States has made its intentions known by diverting boat people seeking asylum in the United States, which, in turn, has summarily returned them to China." For refugee advocates, the greatest fear is refoulement -- or the returning of refugees to the hands of their persecutors -- a clear violation of international law.
So far no one in the federal government has said what this agreement will cost in terms of housing, feeding and processing asylum-seekers. Although the Office of Management and Budget is undertaking a financial assessment of the agreement, its findings have yet to be made public. Senator Charles Schumer (D -N.Y.), who has expressed serious reservations about the impact on communities and relief agencies along the Canadian border, is urging that the agreement be put on hold until its costs are known.
Nevertheless, the Safe Third Country Agreement appears to be all but a certainty -- the Canadian Cabinet approved it on Oct. 7. Whatever happens, Giantonio will still be there for the refugees.
"When you see a woman with a couple children get out of your car and walk alone from U.S. Immigration across the border to Canadian Immigration, it's so profound that words can't even begin to state the impact it has on you, let alone the impact it has on them," he says. "That's what it all comes down to."