TORONTO — Canadian and U.S. immigration officials believe a smuggling ring has been bringing Romanian gypsies into the U.S. through Mexico in order for them to eventually gain asylum in Canada.
At least 85 Romanians, including 35 children, have arrived in Canada since February and applied for asylum, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Wednesday. They typically spend a few days in Mexico before illegally crossing the U.S. border and then driving north into Quebec, he said.
All were smuggled through a Vermont town where border security was only recently beefed up in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Once in Canada, most asylum seekers are freed from detention while their claims are pending, a process that can take years. They are eligible to receive public assistance benefits while their cases are being settled.
However, new Canadian immigration laws enacted in June allow for the mandatory detention of people suspected to have arrived in Canada via smugglers. Thirty of the 85 Romanians have been detained under that law and authorities are searching for another 45, Kenney said. The remaining 10 will not be detained because they arrived before the law took effect. The law does not preclude the Romanians from pursuing asylum while in detention.
All 85 have been classified as "irregular arrivals, meaning they can't apply for permanent residence status for at least five years.
"Quite frankly we really haven't seen anything like this in our immigration system before. People from Europe that go to Mexico, that go through the U.S. to come to Canada and then go to Toronto where many of them got involved in criminal activity," Kenney said at a news conference in Stanstead, Quebec, a town that borders Vermont.
Kenney said he could not say whether the 85 Romanians were gypsies, also known as Roma. But U.S. immigration officials who have documented a spike in the number of Romanians crossing the Mexico-U.S. border illegally have said most are Roma.
The apparent spike in illegal crossings into Canada by Romanians may be due to a 2004 agreement between the United States and Canada. The agreement stipulates that foreigners who present themselves at a Canadian border post seeking asylum should be refused entry and told to seek asylum in the United States, which has more difficult requirements.
Kenney said that Canada won't tolerate those who abuse the generosities of its immigration system.
"We are sending a strong message to those who are thinking of using the services of criminal human smugglers to sneak their way into Canada - don't do it," he said.
Kenney said many of the 85 Romanians went to Toronto and some to Montreal. Canadian immigration and public safety officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case, said many of the Romanians arrived indebted to a criminal organization, and in some cases, engaged in crime to pay back the smugglers. Twelve have been charged with crimes since arriving in Canada, the officials said.
Over the past year, cars loaded with asylum seekers – many of them Romanian – have run the border between Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, according to immigration and local officials. So far this year, 260 people have crossed the border illegally at Stanstead, according to statistics from the Canadian Border Services Agency. That's up from 168 in 2011 and 85 in 2010.
For decades, the two towns virtually lived as one community, with the border line running through homes and businesses. Only since the 9/11 attacks raised new national security concerns did the two countries block once open streets and require people going between the countries to pass through border posts.
Miguel Begin, the Canada Border Services Agency operations chief for the Stanstead sector, said many of the illegal crossers stop at a Wall-Mart in the town of Magog, just north of Stanstead, where someone calls authorities on their behalf. Police then drive them back to the border crossing where they begin processing their cases.
"Somebody, we suppose, gives them an address that's easy to find with a GPS," said Magog police spokesman Paul Tear.
Nicholas Dostie, a Magog tow-truck driver, said he was called to the Wall-Mart in October to return a vehicle, which had arrived with 12 people, back to the border. He said that before towing the vehicle, he witnessed the 12 people – men, women and children – being driven off in five Royal Canadian Mounted Police vehicles.
Statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that 901 Romanians were apprehended along the Mexican border in fiscal year 2012 – a sharp rise from 575 in 2011 and 384 in 2010. The region where the Romanians are crossing from Mexico has shifted between the Tuscon sector, the Rio Grande valley and El Centro in the Imperial Valley of Southern California.
"You don't normally find people from Romania crossing in El Centro," said ICE San Diego spokesman Lauren Mack. "We have noticed and are aware of an increase in the number of Roma who are being smuggled into the United States and are concerned about it."
Mack said ICE is aware the Romanians are headed to Canada.
Romanians seeking to enter the U.S. or Canada need pre-approved visas. They do not need visas to enter Mexico.
Members of the Roma ethnic group are descendants of nomads who moved out of what is now India 800 years ago. They speak a distinct language, a variation of Hindi. They have faced centuries of repression in Europe.
Gina Csanyi-Robah, the executive director of the Roma Community Center in Toronto, said she was only aware of the border crossings between Vermont and Quebec from media inquiries, but she understands what drives Roma to seek new lives in Canada.
She expressed doubt that an organized smuggling system is behind the spike in arrivals, saying it is more likely that the Roma have learned by word-of-mouth that the Vermont crossing has been successful.
"This community works by word of mouth. So if you have one family going and finding it safe to claim asylum, you can guarantee there will be 10 families behind them, the relatives, the friends. And those 10 families are going to tell another 10 families each," she said.
She said she has heard of people reaching Canada via Mexico and the United States.
"For people that are desperate for something, it's not a long route for a better life," Csanyi-Robah said.
Ring reported from Stanstead, Vermont.