The term "asylum seeker" may not conjure up images of a U.S. passport holder, but in the first three quarters of 2016, Canada registered dozens of U.S. citizens seeking refugee status on Canadian soil, according to statistics from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). While it might be too soon to call it a "Trump bump," the number of American asylum seekers in November 2016, at 28 people, was also significantly higher than the same month the previous year, at just five people.
Between January and October 2016, 90 U.S. citizens arrived in Canada by land to seek asylum. It was not immediately clear how many of these claims were granted.
There are no official figures since U.S. President Donald Trump took office on January 20, but the number of refugee claimants entering from the U.S. has been on the uptick, with 40 border crossers arriving in Manitoba and Quebec last weekend, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. Whether any of them were American or Mexican is not known. Published reports show some from Syria, Somalia and Sudan.
From 2013 to 2015, in fact, more U.S. citizens than Mexicans applied for asylum in Canada, according to IRCC data. During those years, 133 Mexicans came by land to claim asylum in Canada, compared to 184 people with U.S. citizenship.
With President Trump's recent attempt to halt refugee intake, ban US entry to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and plan to tighten the border with Mexico, there could be a surge of people who already have legal status in the U.S. but want to move to Canada to avoid potential persecution, according to Zool Suleman, a Vancouver-based refugee lawyer.
Trump provoked chaos and protest with a series of orders that suspended all refugee intake temporarily, all Syrian refugee intake until further notice and barred entry to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) even if they had a green card or had lived a long time in the U.S. Some green card holders were detained and questioned for hours.The entry ban was struck down in court but the Trump administration has said it will be rewritten and appealed to a higher court.
Not feeling safe in the U.S.?
Suleman said the higher number of American than Mexican asylum seekers is "an anomaly" perhaps caused by the fact that Canada imposed visa requirements on travelers from Mexico to reduce refugee claims. The restriction that came into effect in 2009 was just lifted in December 2016.
That said, the tense political climate in the U.S. might push more people to escape to Canada.
"It's hard to know how the next 12 months will go," Suleman said. "There will be an increase in people claiming asylum status because they feel they can't stay in America or are feeling persecuted in America. Especially if they come from a Muslim country and become an American citizen but still feel discriminated against in America or don't feel safe."
He said historically, however, U.S. citizens have poor odds of successfully claiming refugee status in Canada. Normally, Americans come to Canada as immigrants in search of a better life, not as refugees fleeing persecution.
"U.S. citizens don't have a good rate of success in the Canadian refugee courts," he said. "Canadian refugee courts' view has generally been that the government of America is able and willing to provide protection and that depending on the type of persecution, there are alternatives. You can go live in other parts of America. American refugee claims will continue to be challenged."
Anticipating persecution under Trump
Compared to other countries, relatively few citizens from the U.S. have claimed asylum in Canada over the years. During the January - October 2016 period, refugee applicants included 895 Chinese citizens, 945 Nigerian citizens, and 575 people of Turkish nationality. Only 360 Syrian nationals arrived in Canada claiming refugee status during that time.
But Suleman says there may be more people from south of the border crossing into Canada, out of fear that the White House will succeed in reinstating its refugee ban and take future measures to target people from certain countries. In November, then-president-elect Trump pledged to "immediately" deport up to 3 million undocumented illegal immigrants, and appeared to make good on his promise as he implemented immigration raids last week that resulted in 600 arrests. He called certain Mexican illegal immigrants 'bad hombres' during a presidential debate, and claimed his temporary travel ban — which has since been overturned in court — was designed to keep "bad dudes" from arriving as refugees in the U.S. This rhetoric from the White House could have an impact on migrants who have managed to become citizens in the U.S., Suleman suggested.
"I think some of it is anticipatory. Some are coming across anticipating worsening immigration enforcement and worsening political climate for them," Suleman said.
But he warned that refugee claimants coming to Canada because they had a negative experience in the U.S. could find themselves in a similar situation once they arrive in Canada. Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in a news conference with President Trump on Monday that Canada was practicing a policy of "openness" toward refugees and immigrants, the reality is that refugees can find themselves not only rejected, but also put in detention centres or jails.
"Some people are coming because they've had a poor refugee claimant experience in the U.S.. Some said they went to the U.S., they were detained, didn't get a lawyer or a fair process, then were denied. These issues existed before President Trump. But people need to know that if they're coming to Canada, they could be detained here as well."
According to Vancouver-based refugee advocacy group No One is Ilegal, 87,317 migrants were detained in Canada between 2006 and 2014, and sometimes put in provincial jails. They can be detained for months, and in cases where the applicant has mental health issues, they may be held for years.
Editor's note: the lede was revised at 9:29 a.m. on February 28.