December 6, 2012

Gypsies take curious route through US to asylum in Canada

Rob Gillies and Wilson Ring / The Associated Press

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Miguel Begin, the chief of operations for the Canada Border Services Agency's Stanstead sector, stands at the Canadian port of entry in Stanstead, Quebec, recently.


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In this Nov. 13, 2012 photo, Nicholas Dostie stands in front of his tow-truck in Magog, Quebec, that he said he used to tow a van in which about a dozen men, women and children entered Canada illegally from the United States and applied for political asylum. Canadian immigration officials on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 said a Romanian smuggling ring has been bringing Gypsies into the U.S. through Mexico in order for them to eventually gain asylum in Canada. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

The two towns are separate only in name and country — otherwise, they are essentially one community. The border runs through yards and buildings. Until recently, people could freely walk across quiet residential streets to visit neighbors in another country.

Since Sept. 11, many of those streets have been blocked off and residents required to pass through border posts. It's not entirely clear how Derby Line and Stanstead became the focus for Gypsies, but until repeated crossings like the one in October led Canada to beef up security on its side, agents didn't have the resources available to their American counterparts.

In 2010, 85 people crossed the border illegally at Stanstead, according to statistics from the Canada Border Services Agency. In 2011, that number rose to 168, and so far this year, it is 260.

Gina Csanyi-Robah, the executive director of the Roma Community Center in Toronto, said before Wednesday's announcement that she was aware of the border crossings between Vermont and Quebec only because of media inquiries. She doubted it was an organized smuggling system.

"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.

University of Vermont anthropologist Jonah Steinberg, who has studied Roma culture in Europe and North America, said the movement fits longstanding patterns.

"The coverage has been focused on what's bad about this. Another thing you might be seeing is a kind of very well-informed mobilization of opportunities and possibilities for movement," Steinberg said. "I think Roma are very skilled at moving across the world and at finding opportunities for new places to live. They can move pretty quickly and pretty easily."

For the Roma in Canada, life is less oppressive than elsewhere, Csanyi-Robah said, but she believes the Canadian government is changing its immigration policies with the specific intent of excluding Roma. Aside from the government policies, Roma have been well received in Canada, she said.

Canadian officials said many Romanians have arrived indebted to a criminal organization and in some cases engaged in crime to pay back the smuggling debts. Twelve have been charged since arriving in Canada.

Thirty of the irregular arrivals have been arrested under newly enacted immigration laws that allow for the mandatory detention of those suspected to have arrived in Canada via smugglers, Kenney said.

Kenney declined to identify their ethnicity but said groups of Romanians illegally crossed into Canada between February and October. He noted that Canada has one of the most generous immigration systems in the world but won't tolerate those who abuse or cheat it.

"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," Kenney said.

Roma communities are known for their insularity, and authorities did not make any asylum seekers available for comment.

While Derby Line is the Canadian crossing of choice, funnel points along the Mexican border have shifted. In 2010, most Romanians were apprehended in the Tucson, Arizona, sector; in 2011, it was split between Tucson and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In 2012, the Imperial Valley of Southern California became the favorite crossing site, with 509 Romanian apprehensions there so far this year.

Statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that 384 Romanians were apprehended along the Mexican border in fiscal year 2010, 575 in 2011 and 901 in 2012. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have noticed the spike.

The agents apprehending them know they are dealing with Gypsies, said ICE's Mack. And they are aware the Romanians are headed to Canada.

In the October crossing in Stanstead, Nicholas Dostie, the tow truck driver hired to take the California van back to the border, said the men, women and children were carried back in a caravan of Mountie cruisers.

Once at the border, officials said, the Gypsies began the process of applying for asylum.

Though it seems like a long detour to go from Europe to Mexico and across a continent to reach asylum, Csanyi-Robah said she could understand the pull.

"For people that are desperate for something," she said, "it's not a long route for a better life."

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