Amid desperation, Haitian-Canadians plead with Ottawa to relax immigration rules

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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MONTREAL - Immigration advocates are pleading with the Canadian government to be more flexible in allowing evacuees arriving from quake-ravaged Haiti to be joined by their relatives.
A coalition of refugee and immigrant groups presented a number of requests Tuesday for Ottawa to further relax its entry rules during the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
They delivered that lengthy list as distressed Haitian-Canadians continued massing outside the offices of immigration consultants in the desperate hope they might help get their loves ones here faster.
Advocates want the definition of who qualifies for family reunification to be broadened beyond the immediate household, to include brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and grandparents.
They were asked at a press conference how many Haitian refugees their proposals might open the door to, and said it was impossible to provide an estimate.
In addition to automatic entry for closer family members, they want more distant relatives - like cousins - to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
They say Ottawa has shown some signs of flexibility, but needs to do far more.
"We're glad that the government has announced there is going to be an acceleration of family reunification files," said Janet Dench, of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
"However, the feeling strongly is that the measures that have been announced to date are quite inadequate to the event."
As it stands, spouses, children under 22 years old, parents, grandparents and orphaned minors qualify for family reunification.
There are other demands: the group wants the government to allow Haitians who have been in Canada for three years but refused refugee status to be allowed to apply for permanent residence status.
And it's asking that all immigration fees be waived during the current crisis.
"Measures were taken in the past to be more flexible and we're asking for it now," said Keder Hyppolite, a Haitian community activist.
"It's an exceptional situation and we're asking for exceptional measures because everyone is suffering."
Dench said it would be easier to bring people to Canada and deal with the cases here.
On average, the processing wait times at the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince before the natural disaster stood at 15 months.
Dench said it would be inhuman to have people waiting for months in Haiti, especially considering that many people have lost personal documentation and don't have access to a doctor to do the medical checkup required by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.
Ottawa has promised to temporarily speed up immigration applications from Haitians with family in Canada.
The government has said that priority consideration will also be given to Canadians who are trying to adopt Haitian children.
And the government has said it will accelerate applications to extend the stay of Haitians already living temporarily in Canada.
Fees for such applications will be waived and temporary residents may apply for work permits.
"Realistically, we can't expect Immigration Canada to come and rescue family members in the next day or two," Dench said.
"However, more realistically, we do have the capacity to be able to respond in significant ways through immigration channels so things work in a matter of months rather than a matter of years."
Dench said it has been done before: the Canadian government showed a willingness to be more flexible after the tsunami hit in south and southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, a few hundred desperate Haitian-Canadians lined up for a second day at an immigration consulting office where volunteers had offered to go through paperwork to help expedite the process.
Many were turned away Monday after waiting in the cold for up to seven hours.
But people returned again Tuesday to the offices of Immigration 911, saying that it gave them hope that someone was offering to help them in a time of need.
But authorities are warning people to be wary of promises to fast-track cases. Immigration advocates are also telling people to be careful.
"My concern is that I don't know who they are, what they're doing and what their competence is," said Rivka Augenfeld, who works with a Quebec coalition of refugee and immigrant groups.
"But anyone who announces their services in a way that results in that kind of a scene . . . there's something wrong with their non-statement and hiding behind a name."

Organizations: Canadian Council for Refugees, Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Immigration Canada Immigration 911 Quebec coalition

Geographic location: Ottawa, Haiti, Canada MONTREAL Port-au-Prince Asia

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