In December, the Méndez Reyes family became the latest in a series of political asylum cases in Montreal that have gained the media’s attention.1 The Canadian government definitively denied refugee status to this Mexican family of four, ordering them to leave the country in three weeks’ time, by mid-January 2013. The father, Fernando Reyes, affirmed that on three occasions he was kidnapped in Mexico, the third time in the company of his then 11-year-old son. This recurrent violence finally pushed him and his family to seek political asylum in Canada in 2008. In a final effort to try to influence the government’s decision and to publicly denounce Canadian treatment of Mexican asylum seekers, the family turned to the media to publicize their case. Since October 2011, when Paula Ortíz was obliged to leave Canada—leaving behind two Canadian-born small children—numerous such cases have received significant media attention.
Such cases have served to illuminate a much broader but largely silent and invisible phenomenon, as thousands of other Mexican asylum seekers have also been forcibly expelled from Canada in recent years. This novel phenomenon sits at the contemporary intersection of three major processes: increased North American economic integration; the transformation in the nature of state and social violence in Mexico; and radical policy reform that renders political asylum increasingly and durably inaccessible, particularly for peoples from the Global South.
From the early 1990s to 2009, the number of Mexicans seeking political asylum in Canada steadily and quite dramatically increased. While they numbered about 250 in 1994—the year NAFTA went into effect—their number increased to 3,350 in 2005, causing Mexicans to become the most common seekers of asylum on Canada; the yearly petition rate finally reached over 9,000 in 2009. To definitively counter this “emerging crisis,” in July 2009, the Canadian government implemented a visa requirement on all Mexicans traveling to Canada. The requirement—expensive, complex, designed to exclude—acts as a legal wall, making it impossible for most Mexicans to reach Canada and preventing them from applying for political asylum once in the country.2
Without a visa, Mexicans can no longer reach Canada by taking a direct international flight, which is how most asylum seekers once arrived. Moreover, until 2009, Mexicans could cross the U.S.-Canada border overland to request asylum. Migrants traveling overland now have to apply for political asylum in the United States. In other words, unauthorized migrants in the United States cannot apply for asylum at the Canadian border. The 2009 implementation of the Canadian visa has effectively harmonized the visa policies of the United States and Canada. Acceptance rates for asylum in the United States, however, are much lower than in Canada, and those who cross the border to the United States to seek political refuge are systematically imprisoned. Yet the number of Mexicans seeking asylum in the United States has also increased in recent years.
To justify this legal wall, the Canadian government mobilized potent discourses that sought to categorically and unequivocally undermine the legitimacy and political subjectivity of Mexican asylum seekers. According to the Canadian government, the vast majority of applications were “false” or “bogus.” Drawing on deeply engrained stereotypes, these people were portrayed simply as “economic migrants” seeking to gain access to permanent residency and full citizenship in Canada. Thus, according to Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, they were not in need of state protection and were “abusing” the Canadian asylum policy. He accused Mexican asylum seekers, furthermore, of being “queue jumpers” in the immigration line.3 This argument is also deeply pernicious. Not only does it connote that Mexicans are trying to cheat the system, but it also wrongly implies that they could qualify to migrate to Canada under other means. There are no “queues” available for most Mexicans to jump. Recursively reinforcing and reflecting these discourses, the acceptance rate of petitions for asylum continued to decrease as the number of applicants increased. In the years leading up to and following the imposition of the visa, acceptance rates hovered between 8% and 17%.
Curiously, particular postures from within the Canadian government contradict the overarching position of the Canadian government vis-à-vis contemporary violence in Mexico, as well as the motivations of Mexican asylum seekers. For example, the government of Canada has issued a travel warning, encouraging its citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution” when traveling to Mexico, discouraging in particular all “non-essential travel” in northern states.4 The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IBRC) has recognized, furthermore, that certain rejected asylum claimants were under threat of persecution and suffered from “generalized” forms of violence. The IBRC justified denying these individuals refugee status because “generalized violence” does not fall into the types of persecution recognized by the Geneva Convention. This fact calls into question the categories of persecution maintained by the Geneva Convention and not the legitimacy of asylum seekers’ petitions.
When the Canadian government imposed the visa requirement in 2009, thousands of Mexicans who had applied for asylum were still in Canada awaiting the evaluation of their asylum applications. Since then, we have documented the lives of many of these people in Montreal as they have struggled individually and collectively for the recognition of their rights while seeking to reframe discourses and debates regarding Mexico. Although it is difficult to know for certain, we believe that the Canadian government is now in the process of adjudicating the last of the cases from the pre-2009 visa period; thus, this massive yet largely invisible migration of people is now nearing an end. Examining political asylum from the vantage point of their lives, however, poses crucial questions about the meaning and status of political asylum today, particularly as countries throughout the Global North now use asylum policies as tools for exclusion rather than as instruments for promoting broad humanitarian action.5
Contrary to the simplistic portrait frequently bandied about by the Canadian government, the research that we have conducted suggests that the causes of this novel but short-lived migratory flow are complex. While economic factors do play a role, reducing Mexican asylum seekers to “economic migrants” is, in our view, deeply prejudicial. According to interviews that we have conducted with asylum seekers, multiple and diverse forms of violence underpinned many people’s life stories, including gendered forms of violence (directed against both women and homosexuals), violence spawned by narco-trafficking and the Mexican government’s recent war on the drug cartels, a widespread sense of fear and insecurity, and targeted state-sponsored violence against social movement leaders and political and human rights activists. To this list must be added the practices of state impunity. These include direct, often violent acts of retribution against individuals who denounce government officials and members of the police for corruption or other crimes, as well as the generalized lack of police and judicial protection in Mexico, which renders most Mexicans systematically vulnerable to all forms of violence.
Unsurprisingly, and in a mutually reinforcing manner, many of these same individuals have also suffered from acute forms of economic insecurity. Testimonials varied greatly, but many spoke of the difficulty of making ends meet; the increasing repression against unauthorized migrants in the United States and the violence at the U.S.-Mexico border, which make migration to the United States more difficult; and the threat to habitual livelihoods with the spread of criminal networks throughout rural Mexico. In this sense, we believe that this migration flow has deeply entwined political and economic causes. Thus, as is the case with other refugee flows from the Global South, Mexican asylum seekers destabilize the hard categorical distinction that the Canadian government seeks to impose on migrants through labels such as political refugees (and “real” asylum seekers) or economic migrants (and “false” asylum seekers). Maintaining these strong categorical distinctions represents, in fact, just another state strategy of border enforcement. In contrast to the Canadian government’s characterizations, we believe, from an ethical and analytical viewpoint, that this migration flow might be best categorized as a form of “survival migration,” or mobility caused by an existential threat to the personhood of individuals, families, or communities.6 In other words, multifaceted forms of human insecurity, both political and economic, underpin this mixed migratory flow.
The fact that the political and economic causes of Mexican asylum seeking can be found, at least partially, in processes that operate at the transnational (or properly North American) scale, directly linked to the process of North American integration, adds complexity to the situation. The flow of arms from the United States into Mexico and the return flow of drug money; the increasing repression of unauthorized migrants in the United States; and the destruction of Mexican livelihoods and environments in urban and rural areas linked to neoliberal economic policies, including the very notable presence of Canadian mining companies on Mexican soil, all contribute to the multifaceted forms of violence and the concomitant production of human insecurity that characterize contemporary Mexican society. Three asylum cases with which we are familiar sit clearly at the crosscurrents of these processes: first, a bank teller who was pressured by drug traffickers to launder money, which surely would have filtered into the global financial system; second, a social movement activist who struggled against a Canadian mining company in San Luis Potosí; and third, another activist centrally involved in the student movement against privatization at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2000. All three were granted asylum, yet the current visa requirement would make similar petitions virtually impossible today.
In addition to recasting how we understand the motivations and causes of asylum seeking among Mexicans, our research has helped to highlight several other processes that call into question the dominant discourses and practices of the Canadian government regarding asylum. Locally, many of the people with whom we have interacted have been criminalized. Men, in particular, frequently spent time in detention, either upon arrival in Canada or just before the set date of expulsion. Furthermore, almost across the board and regardless of skills or background, asylum seekers have been pushed into the low-wage economy in Montreal. They typically receive wages under the table or work for minimum wage in private homes as domestics, in restaurants, and in factories. The nature of work that asylum seekers performed spoke of exploitation and vulnerability, rather than of individuals who were “abusing” the system. In different ways, both of these trends (criminalization and informality) durably blur the line between asylum seekers and clandestine and undocumented workers, further reinforcing the former’s lack of legitimacy.
At the transnational scale, the phenomenon of asylum seeking among Mexicans highlights an emerging pattern of transnational itinerant movement or homelessness in North America. One person we interviewed, for example, lived with his family as an unauthorized immigrant in the United States, losing his job twice due to raids by immigration officials in the United States. At the church that he frequented, he received advice and aid to apply for asylum in Canada. However, the request was eventually denied. Just before his and his family’s expulsion, Canadian immigration officials detained him, asserting that he was at risk of flight. As stated simply by another family we interviewed who had also lived in all three countries, “We are not wanted anywhere.” Furthermore, upon return to Mexico, many of our contacts felt that they could not return to their previous hometowns or states. For example, a homosexual, whom we shall call David, suffered violence at the hands of a police officer and onetime sexual partner. When he returned to Mexico—he was also detained before being expelled—he believed that he could not go back to his previous home, opting instead to try his chances in a different state. Another notable case involves members of a peasant family who were victims of extortion by the Zetas, a trafficking gang. Unable to pay their “quota” and fearing for their lives, the family applied for asylum in Canada but were turned down because of the “generalized” nature of the violence from which they suffered. When they return, they plan to migrate to a different region in Mexico, with slim hopes of acquiring land there to cultivate.
An increasing number of Mexican asylum seekers choose to stay in Canada clandestinely. Cristina, for example, has made this very difficult and complicated choice. She was a victim of severe sexual violence at the hands of competing narco-trafficking networks. Given this history, she considers the personal bodily safety that she feels in Canada well worth the isolation, invisibility, and illegality of her current situation. In Canada, being clandestine means living fully in the shadows with no access to any state services, such as education or health care.
Taken together, the patterns of mobility highlighted above force us to consider the degree to which some Mexicans within North America are truly stateless and homeless, with no government willing to offer them protection or defend their rights. This idea of “statelessness” was strongly reflected in recent comments made by Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto while on his pre-inaugural North American diplomatic tour. In a joint press conference in Ottawa given by Peña Nieto and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper on November 28, the thorny issue of the visa travel restriction arose. In response, Harper affirmed that “we would ultimately like to see visa-free travel with Mexico,” but that Canada has to complete ongoing reforms to its immigration system before doing so. Peña Nieto responded by stating, “As Mr. Harper said, [the visa requirement] is the result of excessive refugee claims that were perhaps unfounded—citizens of our country who claim refugee status, which got them access to social security benefits in this country.”7 Sadly, Peña Nieto’s words simply reinforce and legitimize the Canadian government’s prejudicial posture toward Mexican asylum seekers.
In Canada, the fate of Mexican asylum seekers has been caught up in sweeping changes to Canadian asylum policy, the primary objective of which is to stem the flow of refuge claimants. Perverse as it would seem, Mexico has served as a useful “example” to justify such reforms. The use of a visa requirement, systematically applied to countries of the Global South, combined with the safe third-country agreement with the United States, prevents potential asylum seekers from ever reaching Canadian soil. These legal instruments mean that the Canadian boundary now operates in a partially- de-territorialized manner, running through airports and embassies, while increasingly relying on U.S. border enforcement practices as well.
For those people who somehow do manage to arrive in Canada seeking political refuge, the very recent law C-31, which took effect December 15, has quite dramatically changed how their cases will be evaluated. Indeed, this law, which has been categorically condemned by immigrant and refugee activists, further undermines the rights of asylum seekers and refugees in multiple ways. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, the following issues are of particular concern: The law speeds up the entire evaluation process, making it difficult for asylum seekers to prepare their cases; it creates distinct national categories, which will inevitably lead to unequal treatment among asylum seekers from different countries; it opens the door for prolonged imprisonment; and it delays the possibility of family reunification for those granted asylum.8 The border is hardening not only externally but internally as well.
1. Lisa-Marie Gervais, “Immigration—pas de répit pour l’expulsion des demandeurs d’asile,” Le Devoir (Montreal), December 28, 2012.
2. See Patricia Martin and Annie Lapalme, “Mexican Mobility and Canada: Hardening Boundaries and Growing Resistance,” Border Wars (blog), August 8, 2012, available at nacla.org.
3. See Citizenship and Immigration ministry, Canada, “Canada Imposes a Visa on Mexico” (press release), July 13, 2009, available at cic.gc.ca, and Michelle Collins, “Cabinet Pulls the Plug on Mexican and Czech Visa-Free Travel,” Centre for International Governance Innovation, July 15, 2009, available at cigionline.org.
4. Travel Advisory, travel.gc.ca/destinations/mexico.
5. See Jennifer Hyndman and Alison Mountz, “Refuge or Refusal: The Geography of Exclusion,” in Violent Geographies: Fear, Terror and Political Violence, ed. Derek Gregory and Allan Pred(Routledge, 2007), 77–91.
6. Alexander Betts, “Survival Migration: A New Protection Framework,” Global Governance 16: (2010): 361–82.
7. CBC World News, “Canada Preparing to Drop Visa Rule for Mexican Visitors,” November, 28, 2012, available at cbc.ca
8. See Canadian Council for Refugees, “Concerns About Changes to the Refugee Determination System,” undated, available at ccrweb.ca.
Patricia Martin is Associate professor of Geography at the Université de Montréal. She is currently conducting research on various forms of social and political violence in Oaxaca. Annie Lapalme is completing a master’s thesis in geography at the Université de Montréal that focuses on Mexican asylum seekers in Canada. She is a member of migrant justice advocacy groups in Montreal.