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Guatemalan family gives up on American dream to seek asylum in Canada

In the basement of a stately Buffalo home, a family of eight found a safe place to hide while waiting to seek asylum on the other side of the Peace Bridge.

Originally from Guatemala, Daniel and Sandra did not have legal status in the U.S. As teenagers, they both crossed the border from Mexico illegally in pursuit of a better life, free of the violence and poverty of their native land.

[Gallery: Asylum-seekers want freedom in Canada]

All of their children were U.S. citizens, born in the U.S.A. They owned a home and cars in Detroit. Daniel had a job in landscaping. Their daughters were on the swim team.

Regardless, they worried about what would happen if they were deported. With the new president calling for a wall between Mexico and the U.S. and vowing to deport millions, they made the decision to leave America to try to start anew in Canada.

They aren’t alone.

There’s been a surge of people seeking asylum in Canada since Trump's election – some weeks have seen double the norm – and that's meant a longer wait to have a claim heard at the border. It used to take two to three days to get an appointment. Now, agencies in Buffalo and Canada who work with asylum-seekers say it takes up to three, even four weeks.

And the kind of people seeking asylum has changed. In the past, most of them were people traveling through the U.S. who were planning all along to go to Canada. Lately, immigrant advocates on both sides of the Peace Bridge say they have noticed an increase in people who had been living in the U.S. for many years trying to get into Canada.

People like Daniel and Sandra.

Daniela, 13, center, translates for her parents, Daniel and Sandra, instructions from the staff at the Newcomer Centre at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie. The staff explained that the couple could expect to be called in to three separate interviews with Canadian border agents as they seek asylum in Canada. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Uptick at Vive

Shortly after the election, the phone calls started at Vive, a shelter in an old schoolhouse on Buffalo’s East Side for people seeking asylum in Canada.

“Nothing has changed, nothing has changed,” Anna Ireland, executive director of Vive, remembered telling panicked callers. Then came the executive orders on immigration and news of raids where hundreds were detained to be deported.

Vive provides shelter and immigration counseling. Clients pay $100 to register for the program. Shelter residents 7 years old and older are also asked to pay $100 a week for a bed and meals.

Nuns with the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo started Vive in 1984 to house Central and South Americans trying to get to Canada. Two years ago, Jericho Road Community Health Center took over operations of Vive's shelter on Wyoming Avenue.

Normally, Vive gets about 100 calls a day from people around the world trying to get asylum in Canada and has 70 or 80 people staying at the shelter.

This winter the call volume shot up to 2,000 a day. And it seemed at least a dozen people a day were showing up desperate for help.

The staff at Vive was already struggling to find beds for everyone in early March when a family of 10 arrived.

Ireland called Joelle Herskind. She and her husband Mark – a Buffalo couple with strong ties to Jericho Road – have offered help before. But nothing quite like this.

The Herskinds didn’t know anything about this family. They just knew they faced some sort of immigration issue.

The couple has a big, beautiful house with a finished, spacious basement. As Christians, they felt it was a natural expression of their faith to take in this family of 10.

"In the Scriptures, it says to care for the refugees, care for the orphans, care for the poor," Joelle Herskind said.

The Buffalo couple decided to make their home a sanctuary at a time when the Trump administration announced it would penalize cities that declared themselves "sanctuary cities" for undocumented immigrants.

Mark  Herskind holds 2-year-old Aaron, who was born in the U.S. to parents who were here without legal status and were seeking asylum in Canada. Herskind and his wife Joelle sheltered two families of asylum-seekers in their Buffalo home. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Buffalo is not a sanctuary city although the mayor describes it as a community that welcomes refugees.

“This was a deep breath – and a yes,” Joelle Herskind said of the decision.

She was nervous at first. Her husband was out of town so she’d be home alone when the strangers arrived.

When the family showed up at their door, there was a father, a mother and eight children. The youngest was 8 months old. The oldest, 12.

Joelle Herskind said she took one look and knew she had nothing to worry about. “I was like: I don’t need to feel vulnerable. Think of how vulnerable they must feel.”

No guarantee

There is no guarantee Canada will take in an asylum seeker.

“This is life or death for them,” said Dr. Myron Glick, medical director of Jericho Road. “There are no assumptions that this is easy. This is a life-changing sort of event. If they get rejected, it puts them in a really bad status.”

As of April 9, Canada had denied asylum claims to 785 people this year. In all of 2016, it turned away 774 people.

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A few months ago, a very pregnant woman who came through Vive was denied asylum status by Canada and was sent back to the U.S., Glick said. The woman gave birth in Buffalo to a baby who turned out to have Down syndrome. The baby has been in and out of the hospital since as Vive has tried to help the woman figure out her next step.

Canada is most likely to accept asylum seekers who have a close family member who lives in the country, an exception to the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires people who want asylum to apply in the first country they step foot in.

The Herskinds made a point of not asking too many questions about the first family they sheltered.

"Legal or illegal, we don't know. We don't care," said Mark Herskind.

They learned the parents were originally from Guatemala. The children were American. Going back to Guatemala was not an option. “They used the word dangerous a lot,” Joelle Herskind said.

The family had relatives in Kitchener, Ont., and wanted to join them there.

The family stayed in the Herskinds' basement, where there's a large room with three full-size futons and a flat screen TV and a bedroom with a bathroom. They'd come upstairs to use the kitchen and even venture outside. They were always cautious.

“There’s definitely a fear of ICE,” said Mark Herskind, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In mid-February, more than 600 people were arrested in raids across the country. Thirty undocumented construction workers were detained in Hamburg and Grand Island.

The mother of the Guatemalan family insisted on cooking. She and Joelle Herskind traded recipes. She taught her how to make real guacamole and salsa. "She wanted to know how to make chocolate chip cookies and apple pie,” Herskind said.

About a week into their stay, the parents approached the Herskinds. They had some relatives – another large family – who were in a similar situation as them and they wanted to seek asylum in Canada.

Could they stay here, too?

The Herskinds said yes.

Longtime residents

One change Vive's staff noticed in the people coming to its doors in the last few months was an increase in longtime residents of the U.S. now wanting to get to Canada.

These were people who either overstayed a visa or never had legal status. Driven by fear of increased enforcement of immigration law, they were seeking asylum from the U.S. in addition to whatever situation they were fleeing when they came to America.

Many of these long-term U.S. residents have family members in Canada, which help them get into the country. But two months later, they must go to an immigration hearing where a judge determines whether they’ll be allowed to stay permanently.

“If you lose your case in two months, you’re getting deported,” said Mariah Walker, who handles Canadian services at Vive.

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The second family

On the evening that the second family of asylum seekers was to arrive at the Herskinds' house, Joelle already had plans to host a bridal shower. She was expecting about 20 women.

The family arrived midafternoon. The shower was at 7.

Joelle Herskind worked it out with the moms to have everyone fed by 6 p.m. Then they went downstairs before the guests arrived.

Herskind told her friends the secret.

"You'd never know there were 18 Guatemalans in the basement," she mentioned, surprising some.

Sandra, an immigrant from Guatemala without legal status in the U.S., prepares dinner with Joelle Herskind in the Herskinds' kitchen. Sandra has taught Joelle how to make guacamole and salsa, while Joelle taught Sandra how to make chocolate chip cookies and apple pie. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Daniel and Sandra

In the open, airy kitchen at the Herskinds' house, Sandra, the mother of the second Guatemalan family to seek shelter there, cranked a can opener to open some refried beans and a pot of water bubbled.

Sandra was showing Joelle Herskind how she makes tostadas de tinga – shredded chicken cooked in a spicy tomato sauce layered with beans, lettuce, cheese and avocado slices on crisp corn tortillas.

“These are black beans?” Herskind asked as Sandra banged on the back of the can with the back of a knife.

“Yes, red beans, too,” Sandra said, explaining either would work.

Sandra turned on the stove.

Guatemala immigrant's recipe for tostadas de tinga

"Do you make anything all of your kids like?" Herskind asked.

"No, especially when I cook vegetables," Sandra said. They laughed.

Two and a half weeks into their stay at the Buffalo home, Sandra and Daniel still were waiting for an appointment with Canadian immigration officials.

Daniel and Sandra allowed The News to follow them through their quest for asylum in Canada. They gave several interviews in English but would not give their last name because they are fearful of what would happen to them and their children if they were to be rejected from Canada or deported to Guatemala.

Daniel explained that he had been living in the U.S. for the past 20 years without legal status.

"I'm not legal here," he said. "No papers."

He was 15 when he crossed the border the first time.

He lived first in Los Angeles washing dishes in restaurants. He later moved to Detroit where he met Sandra. She, too, crossed the border as a teenager to escape a difficult life in Guatemala.

"My father passed away when I was 3 years old," Sandra said. "My mom worked every day. She did everything. Cleaning, washing. All my family in Guatemala is very, very poor."

Sandra worked as a housekeeper at a Detroit hotel.

They moved to Los Angeles where they had their first two children. But the recession hit and work was hard to find. They moved back to Detroit, where Daniel began working for a furniture manufacturer.

In 2011, Daniel was detained in an immigration raid at the factory. He was deported to Guatemala. Determined to get back to his family, he crossed the U.S. border with Mexico. Within 20 days of returning to Detroit, there was another raid. Daniel was deported again. But he came back. This time, he took a job in landscaping.

They had a nice life in Detroit, they said.

They bought a house. "It's little," Sandra said, "but my own house."

Daniel had a pickup truck and Sandra drove a Honda Pilot. The girls were on their school swim team.

But in February, the news was filled with images of immigration raids. Daniel worried about what would happen if he was swept up in another immigration raid.

"If the police got me," he said, "I would get two years or more in jail."

Daniel had three brothers and a sister in Canada. They told Daniel about Vive.

Daniel and Sandra decided it was time for them to seek asylum in Canada. It was not an easy choice.

"America, I love it," Daniel said. "I love this country. I'm no bad guy."

Sitting in the Herskinds' house, he talked about all the things they left behind. "Everything," he said. "I try not cry in front of my kids. I try. It's hard."

Aaron, 2, plays with toy dinosaurs in the basement of Mark and Joelle Herskinds' home in Buffalo. Aaron was born in the U.S., but his parents are immigrants from Guatemala without legal status in the U.S. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

New 'underground railroad'

About the same time Daniel and Sandra arrived in Buffalo and Vive was dealing with the crush of new clients, an article about Vive – calling the shelter "an underground railroad for refugees" – appeared in The New Yorker.

The work at Vive had been going on for years, but suddenly it was in the spotlight. There were concerns about whether the nonprofit would face scrutiny from the federal government. But readers from around the country sent Vive thousands of dollars in donations.

The Herskinds weren't the only ones Vive asked to help shelter asylum-seekers. Vive found space for beds in a rectory of an old church. Two Buffalo churches opened their basements. And several families offered their homes.

Uganda activist, 5-year-old son find shelter in Buffalo rectory

Joelle Herskind sees the parallels between the underground railroad that brought escaped slaves through Buffalo to Canada in the 19th century to what's happening now – at Vive and in her home.

"When we look back at things like the underground railroad, we know how that turned out. We know that it was the right thing to help slaves get freedom," she said. "At the time, when people were doing that, I'm sure it's just like today where people were mixed. 'What is the right thing to do?' … So it's harder in the moment. Easier in hindsight."

Enforcement under Trump

President Obama was also tough on immigration, earning himself the name the “Deporter in Chief.” During his two terms, he deported 3 million people.

In the first 100 days since President Trump took office, U.S. immigration officers have arrested more than 41,000 people either known to be or suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, an increase of 37.6 percent compared with the same period in 2016, according to a statement released May 17 by the agency.

Nearly 75 percent of those arrested were convicted criminals, ICE said. The new figures also show that arrests of people who were not convicted criminals grew during the same period from about 4,200 to more than 10,800, the statement read.

Glick believes there’s a major difference between Trump and his predecessors.

“It is true that President Obama and President Bush deported many people,” Dr. Glick said. “The difference here is part tone and part actual substance. The substance is that the executive order basically gave ICE permission and local officials permission to go after people even if they’re not criminals, even if they’re not breaking the law.”

And in tone, Glick said, Trump “is giving permission to hate, to view people as different, to not acknowledge the nuances of the humanity of the challenge."

Crossing the Peace Bridge

On the morning of April 13, Daniel, Sandra and their children woke up at 5 a.m., finished packing their bags and said goodbye to the Herskinds.

“They’re good people,” Daniel said. “Never in my life I find people like them in America.”

A van from Vive drove the family over the Peace Bridge to check in with the Canada Border Services Agency at 7:30 a.m.

The family was dressed nicely. Daniel and his boys sported fresh haircuts.

Between meetings with the Canadian immigration officers, most asylum seekers are given the chance to rest in the Peace Bridge Newcomer Centre. Operated by the nonprofit Fort Erie Multicultural Centre, it’s located in the same gray building that houses the Canada Border Services Agency.

Like Vive, the Newcome Centre has been overwhelmed with asylum-seekers since November – about double what they had seen the year before.

Daniel and Sandra’s family huddled close on two couches as they waited for their interviews. Next to them, a Syrian woman lay a blanket over her son as her two other children played nearby. They had arrived by taxi the night before and spent the night in the government waiting room.

Seated at two large tables on the other side of the room were a Turkish family, three Haitian men and a Tibetan woman – some of whom had stayed at Vive.

Turkish parents, teenage son find their way, one by one, to Canada

A border officer questioned Daniel first. Next, Sandra. The interviews lasted about an hour.

The questions seemed endless, Sandra said: What was your father’s name? When did you leave your country? What was the year? What was the month?

Canadian authorities called in Daniel for a second interview. In the meantime, their eldest son listened to rap on his phone. The younger ones napped or played with the Syrian children. They made up a game together using Uno cards and tried to teach each other phrases in Spanish and Arabic.

Shortly after 3 p.m., a border agent came into the room with a big stack of folders stuffed with papers. She called Daniel and Sandra over to a counter and asked for their signatures. On top of the documents: “CANADA.” These were IDs.

The family had been granted entry into Canada, at least temporarily. They will have to appear before an immigration judge who will determine whether they'll be granted permanent residency.

Daniel smiled carrying his family's papers. For the first time in 20 years, Daniel and Sandra no longer had to hide.

“This is what I wanted,” he said.

Daniel and his brother-in-law Danny carry luggage after Daniel and his family received permission to enter Canada with legal status at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie on April 13. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)


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