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Border patrol

Immigration | Canadian-U.S. reforms are supposedly tightening the back door to terrorists. But a bloated immigration bureaucracy to the north is sending Christians back to persecution while keeping the welcome mat out for Muslims

Issue: "Jim Talent: Majority maker," Nov. 23, 2002

UNOFFICIAL TOUR GUIDES CALL Parc Extension the lowest-rent district in Canada. Once home to Greek immigrants, it is now a multiethnic haven to Montreal's huddled masses yearning to breathe free: a rapidly growing immigrant population of Haitians, Africans, Chinese, Pakistanis, and assorted Middle Easterners.

To a certain point, Canada is generous to these seekers after asylum. In 2001, it took in 44,000 immigrant refugees, compared to 27,000 for the United States. The U.S. figures reflect a record low following a two-month suspension of all refugee cases while U.S. officials reexamined both immigration policy and border security after Sept. 11. Canada made no such reassessment.

But most Canadians who live in Montreal's most affluent neighborhoods, Mont Royal and Outremont, preserve themselves from contact with their poor neighbors. A vine-dressed chain-link fence separates the haves of Mont Royal from the Parc Extension have-nots. Each year at Halloween residents of Mont Royal bar the gates leading into their leafy streets to keep out low-income trick-or-treaters.

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And, despite new agreements with the United States on border security, Canada passed regulations this past summer that experts say will probably make it more difficult to keep out terrorists, some of whom may head to the United States. The new rules increase screening at the border but also give permanent resident cards to undocumented arrivals. The reforms, according to former immigration director James Bissett, make it "difficult to remove asylum seekers who have committed serious crimes or terrorist acts in their native countries."

U.S.-Canada negotiations resulted in a 30-point "smart border" agreement that President Bush says will provide "a border open for business but closed to terrorists." Many of its technical points are already in place: an electronic system for exchanging fingerprints, joint inspections at border crossings, joint surveillance at certain airports, and improved intelligence sharing. Starting in January, it will be hard for refugees denied asylum in one of the two countries to cross the border to request asylum in the other.

But that agreement sounds better than it actually is. Canada is reluctant to detain illegal immigrants, as the United States often does. As a result, the number of undocumented residents far outstrips the government's ability to patrol them, while legitimate cases suffer under heightened enforcement. The immediate victims are a handful of Christians who attend Ascension Lutheran Church, a small congregation affiliated with the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Straddling a prominent Montreal intersection, Ascension opened more than 60 years ago under the leadership of Slavic immigrants. The church is an anchor amid the succeeding waves of newcomers to the community, combining conservative theology with help for immigrants of all religious stripes.

Fliers dot the neighborhood advertising the church's free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes twice a week. Monday-evening sessions are packed, with Chinese newcomers sitting in the pastor's study, Syrian and Pakistani women in the library, and more advanced ESL students at round tables in the fellowship hall. The teachers are church members but the students are Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, or Marxist atheist-mothers, fathers, grandparents, or teenagers. After classes many linger for a simple Scripture lesson by church pastor Harold Ristau and an invitation to attend regular services.

At one table during Monday-night classes, cordoned behind curtains on the fellowship hall's stage and surrounded by storage boxes, an Iranian immigrant leads a Pakistani and an Afghan mother in English lessons. "There is Mrs. Baker. She is in the living room," they recite, plodding through well-thumbed workbooks.

The women are regulars, eager to learn despite busy schedules at home. One, a newcomer from Afghanistan, is a 22-year-old mother of eight children. The other student is 31, a mother of five, and newly arrived from Pakistan. This is French-speaking Canada, so husbands and school-age children know French and some English; the women have recently received permanent refugee status in Canada and are determined to become multilingual.

As the young women struggle through the workbooks and the drills, their teacher is pleasant and patient, though easy conversation is plainly a long way off. The teacher, 49, arrived in Canada two years ago from Iran. Unlike the Muslim women she is teaching, she is a Christian-and faces deportation.

Church members call the teacher "Nancy" because it is easier to pronounce than her Iranian name. In public (and now in the press) the nickname protects her identity. Nancy told WORLD she has exhausted avenues for appeal in the Canadian system and fully expects to be deported to Iran, where she believes she faces real danger.

Nancy was born to an educated Tehran family that practiced "no religion at all," she said. A trained nurse, she completed her college education in the United States and returned to Iran in 1978 with the Islamic revolution directed by Ayatollah Khomeini fully underway. Nancy had never practiced Muslim hijab-covering of women in public-and was unprepared and dismayed by the cultural changes brought by the revolution in her absence. When a friend invited her to an Armenian church, she was eager to attend. Eventually she became a Christian and a regular churchgoer.

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