Canada is wooing Mexican immigrants
Arizona Republic Mexico City Bureau
May 3, 2005

Chris Hawley

MEXICO CITY - As the United States fortifies its border with Mexico, Canadian companies are reaching out to immigrants who are frustrated by U.S. restrictions and tempted by dreams of a better life in Canada.

The Canadian government has been relaxing its immigration rules in an effort to attract students and skilled workers from all over the world. That, and the push by companies promising jobs and visas, is attracting Mexican professionals turned off by the Minuteman Project, new border walls, tougher U.S. entry requirements and laws like Proposition 200 in Arizona.

"Live in Canada!" says a Mexico City newspaper ad placed by a Canadian labor recruiter, as a photo of the Toronto skyline beckons. "Voted the No. 1 country in the world for living four years in a row," an immigration counseling company boasts on its Web site.

"Canada has its arms open to immigrants, and the United States has its arms closed. It's as simple as that," accountant Marcos Ramírez Posadas said as he stood in line with other visa applicants outside the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City.

The reason, immigration experts say, is that Canada needs more people.

"Our population is shrinking and getting older," said David Rosenblatt, a Canadian immigration lawyer whose firm advertises in Mexico. "Canada, in order to survive and grow, needs to get more skilled workers."

Mexicans are eager to fill the need. Last week, the Canadian Embassy's switchboard was swamped after local television aired a commercial from an immigration law firm about moving to Canada, embassy spokesman Luis Archundia said. None of the recent ads has been placed by the Canadian government itself, he said.

'They have jobs'

"I heard on TV that they have jobs up there," Edgar Solis Peña, a 30-year-old warehouse worker, said as he waited outside the embassy. "It's so hard to even get a hearing at the United States Embassy, so I decided to come here."

The siren song is echoing in the United States, too.

"Come to Canada to work - legally!" says a sign in Spanish recently posted by an immigration consultant near a site frequented by undocumented workers in Mesa, Ariz.

A call to the phone number on the sign yielded a recording that said the voice mailbox overflowed with messages.

Courting immigrants

Mexicans can enter Canada just by showing a passport, much easier than the long, expensive process of getting U.S. visas. Canada also has a widely praised farmworker program and is aggressively courting foreign students.

The country also has an easy-to-follow process for getting work permits that assigns points based on certain skills. The U.S. system is more subjective, with consular officials wielding the power to approve or reject applications without explanation.

Canada's low birth rate, about 1.61 children per couple, means the country needs immigrants to maintain its population of 33 million, Rosenblatt said. The United States is holding steady at 2.08 children per couple.

On April 19, Canada said it would spend $58 million to speed citizenship applications and vowed to triple citizenship approvals for parents and grandparents of immigrants. While they're waiting for citizenship, those people will get 5-year, multiple-entry visas to visit their children in Canada.

Citizenship applicants older than 55 will be exempt from language and Canadian knowledge tests, down from age 60, Immigration Minister Joe Volpe said.

Work rules for foreign college students also will be relaxed, he said. They'll be able to hold jobs off campus, and those who move to smaller cities will be able to work in Canada for two years after graduating , instead of one.

"Canada's immigration system is a model for the world," Volpe said in a written statement announcing the relaxed rules. "(The changes) allow us to maintain and enhance our position."

Rising numbers

That kind of welcome is drawing Mexicans by the thousands.

The number of legal, temporary workers in Canada from Mexico rose 68 percent, to 22,344 from 13,261, from 1998 to 2003, the latest year for which statistics are available. By comparison, there were 110,075 legal, temporary workers admitted to the United States from Mexico in 1998, and 130, 327 in 2003, an 18 percent rise.

"Overall, it's been a really dramatic rise in Canada," said Richard Mueller, an economist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, who just completed a study of Mexican immigrants.

But the true immigration rate could be much higher.

Thousands of Mexicans get into the country just by flashing a passport. Many probably just disappear and work illegally, immigration experts said.

"I think there are a lot of those, but Canada doesn't want to talk about it," said Luin Goldring, a sociology professor and immigration expert at York University in Toronto.

One clue comes from the number of Mexicans applying for "refugee status," which jumped 89 percent from 2000 to 2003 as the United States began fortifying its border.

Refugee claimants

By 2003, peaceful Mexico was Canada's third-biggest source of refugee claimants, right up there with countries like Pakistan, which is plagued by religious violence, and Colombia, devastated by decades of civil war.

"Mexican refugee claims were negligible three or four years ago. Now you're getting 100 a month in Ontario alone," said Sergio Karas, an immigration lawyer in Toronto. Those claims can drag on for years until they are finally turned down, he said.

Refugee claims aren't necessarily a barometer of illegal immigration. But Costa Rica, another tranquil country whose citizens did not need visas to visit Canada, ranked No. 4 among refugee claimants in 2003, outpacing places like China and strife-torn Sri Lanka.

In May 2004, Canada started requiring visas for Costa Ricans, saying many were staying and becoming undocumented immigrants.

Better living

Family ties and easier entry aren't the only reasons Mexicans choose Canada over the United States. Many visa applicants said they were attracted by Canada's open spaces and lower crime rate.

"I have family in Los Angeles and I've visited them there, but I don't like the lifestyle that Mexicans live up there," said Guillermo Rivas Zaldibar, 38 .

"A lot of those people are not very educated. It's not exactly the best people we're sending up there."

Others said they simply don't like Americans.

"I find them very egotistical," said Ramírez, an accountant for an oil-drilling firm. "There are a lot of historical problems between our countries. Canadians are much nicer; they appreciate other cultures."

Minuteman Project

For Victor Pérez Muciño, 33, a municipal worker in the town of Huixquilucan, recent news coverage of the Minuteman Project, a civilian patrol on the Arizona-Mexico border, was the deciding factor.

"We're always hearing about what they're doing to our fellow citizens . . . all these things with vigilantes, migrant hunters," he said. "Who wants to live with that?"

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