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.
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.
Ethnic Christians in Iran, mostly Armenians or Assyrians, are not always harassed by Islamic authorities, but recent converts usually are. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom places Iran on the top tier of the world's worst religious-freedom offenders.
In October 2000 police raided Nancy's home. At the time she was out visiting Christian friends, but police questioned Nancy's husband about her church activities. They also found her Bible and other Christian literature.
At her husband's instruction, Nancy stayed away. Police returned over the next few days, questioning Nancy's husband and her daughter (who are also Christians but had not drawn police attention). They ordered Nancy to appear at security offices. Instead, Nancy and her husband decided she should leave the country. She was able to obtain a Canadian visitor's visa with the help of a sister-in-law then living in Canada, and arrived in North America on Nov. 8, 2000.
Nancy lived in a refugee shelter in Montreal for several months. She attended a small, nondenominational church called Word of Life, where she was baptized on Jan. 25, 2001, before coming to Ascension. After six months of instruction and examination from Mr. Ristau, she became a communicant member able to take the Lord's Supper. She has an apartment two subway stops from the church, teaches ESL at Ascension twice a week, and attends two weekly Bible studies.
So why, after finding a refuge from persecution in Canada and for nearly two years leading what by all appearances is a consistent Christian life, is she likely to be deported into the hands of Iranian officials who clearly wish her ill?
The legal reason is this: In June, an immigration judge ruled against her claim for permanent residency. Immigration and Refugee Board Judge Helene Panagakos said Nancy "does not have a credible basis for the claim"-a ruling that denies her a right to full appeal. The judge wrote that she "does not believe that [Nancy] was baptized and therefore does not believe that she converted to Christianity."
Immigration judges recently have turned down similar claims from other Ascension churchgoers-a mother with two children from Pakistan and her two brothers. Two of those cases also contained the 'no credible basis' ruling that-under Canadian law-blocks all but a technical review of the case by a federal court. Under the cross-border agreement set to take effect in January, Nancy would find no remedy in the United States, either.
Pastor Ristau is mystified. "We are not a big parish," he said, "and yet we've had four hearings this year where Christians were turned down while Muslim neighbors are telling me all the time that they've been accepted. It's not a Muslim versus Christian thing-I'm actually glad the Muslims are making a way to Canada because we can share the gospel with them-but it's hard to believe there isn't something amiss here."
Mr. Ristau was called as a witness in Nancy's case and answered questions from Ms. Panagakos for 90 minutes. The judge questioned him on Nancy's baptism by immersion at a swimming pool under Nancy's previous church; Mr. Ristau affirmed it had occurred. The judge asked about Nancy's understanding of cults, because Nancy was unable to answer a question about whether Jehovah's Witnesses is a cult. The judge was puzzled by Nancy's answer to her question, Who is the head of the church? (Nancy answered, Jesus Christ.) The judge also questioned Mr. Ristau on the meaning of the term evangelical.
In her decision, Ms. Panagakos then wrote: "The Reverend may very well be satisfied that the claimant has converted to Christianity, however, given all that precedes, the panel is not." (Ms. Panagakos referred to herself as a "panel" even though she made the ruling by herself. Immigration and Refugee Board panels by law should be composed of two judges, but a groaning caseload leaves individual immigration judges as final arbiters.)
Nancy is of course dissatisfied with the decision, and says that officials "distrust anybody coming from a Muslim country who says they have converted" to Christianity. She does not believe Ms. Panagakos understood what she was saying, in part because she speaks English but not French and was hampered by a requirement that throughout her hearing she answer questions in Farsi through an interpreter. "I could see some of what I said was lost," she said. The interpreter told Mr. Ristau after the hearing that he is a Muslim and was very confused by the terminology used in the examination. "I don't understand you Christians," he said.
Mr. Ristau is dissatisfied that Ms. Panagakos disputed his testimony. He filed a complaint about the judge with the Immigration and Refugee Board in order to at least lay down a marker for future hearings that are certain to arise through his church's work. "There is no reason why the court should dismiss my assessment or competency," he said. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod president Gerald Kieschnick also protested the decision because it calls into question "a recognized minister" and "the faith of one of the communicant members of our church body."
Mr. Bissett, a former ambassador who served as director of immigration from 1985 to 1990 under Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, also is dissatisfied. When read portions of the judge's decision in Nancy's case, Mr. Bissett told WORLD he was "astounded" by the verdict. "We have a very broad interpretation on asylum. We accept wives from Trinidad who say their husbands are beating them. Why would we trust the present regime in Iran to take back a Christian?"
But neither Ms. Panagakos-like other immigration judges, she is a political appointee-nor other Canadian officials will comment on the ruling. Jacques Ayotte, spokesman for the Immigration and Refugee Board Quebec region, told WORLD, "Everything under refugee protection is confidential. We are bound by law not to publicize information in specific cases."
The Canadian government, Mr. Bissett surmised, may be singling out some Christians for deportation to avoid the appearance of targeting Muslims only as potential threats. "The policy itself is screwy," he said. "What it means is that we cannot help legitimate refugees." Unless something changes, this miscarriage of justice will send Nancy back to Iran.
Americans should care about what will happen to Nancy, and should also be concerned about what will happen to ourselves-if Canada does not change its ways thoroughly.
The 5,525-mile border the United States shares with Canada has always been a point of pride: the longest undefended border in the world. After Sept. 11, 2001, it became cause for concern. None of the 19 hijackers came to the United States via Canada, but U.S. officials had to think no further back than to December 1999 to discover a reason to worry. That's when al Qaeda conspirator Ahmed Ressam crossed to Seattle from Canada by ferry with a car trunk full of nitroglycerine and other bomb-making material. His aim: to set off a bomb in Los Angeles airport on New Year's Eve in what became known as the Millennium Plot.
Mr. Ressam is an emblem of Canada's open-door policy, an Algerian who arrived at Montreal's airport with an obviously fake passport, admitted to a criminal record, and still got in. He spent much of his time in Canada in and around Montreal's Parc Extension-and tried to set off a bomb in nearby Outremont. He failed to show up for asylum hearings but was nonetheless permitted to travel to Afghanistan and back, then head to the United States.
Now in a U.S. prison, Mr. Ressam has confirmed the ongoing existence of up to two dozen terrorist cells in Canada. The United States is trying to take precautions. One new U.S. border measure requires anyone born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, or Syria to be fingerprinted and photographed before entering the United States. Canada's Liberal Party government is opposing that and demanding that Canadian citizens be exempt from that provision.
Canada is apparently not only harboring terrorists but supporting them. Mr. Bissett notes that illegal arrivals are fingerprinted and photographed but seldom pursued once they enter Canada. Regardless of the legality of their status, they are entitled to free health care, education (including post-secondary), and about $320 ($500 Canadian) each month in government support. They have little incentive to show up for an asylum hearing. Canadian taxpayers are left with a $4 billion bill each year.
Another reason that Canada's system is sinking under its own weight is that it assigns top-priority status to a broad category of relatives seeking family reunification, and to unmarried "partners" as well. Officials quickly granted resident status to the mothers tutored by Nancy, along with their children, because their husbands already reside in Canada. Mr. Bissett says that four out of five immigrants are admitted to Canada "because they have relatives here." That leads to "chain migration," where entire villages are transplanted into Canada, with little regard for need or skills-or security risk.
Mr. Bissett is not the only former immigration official who says recent changes are not enough. Former deputy immigration minister Jack Manion, former diplomat Martin Collacott, and former Immigration and Refugee Board vice chairman Bill Bauer, in addition to Mr. Bissett, all testified before Canada's Parliament against new immigration measures.
The United States limits family reunification to immediate relatives only and makes that its third priority, not its first-but U.S. officials acknowledge that Canada isn't the only country with a dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy. Congress passed a new law this past spring and is likely to take up more reforms early next year.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), co-sponsor of the immigration measures, said he believes both countries can go further to improve security without shedding their heritage as havens for the truly homeless and tempest-tossed. "It's very easy to close the door," he said. "But that would be compromising our values in ways that will hurt us over the long haul." He emphasized the need "to find a balance between security and protection of asylum seekers. So we should not go for easy answers."