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BORDER SNARLS CANADA-BOUND REFUGEES

It looked more like a scene at a refugee camp in some Third World country Tuesday than a major gateway to Canada.

More than 30 men and women, watching their children run across a small lawn, huddled under gray blankets to escape the cold wind sweeping in from the nearby Niagara River. They were comforted by the hot coffee and food from Canadian Red Cross workers.

After spending a chilly night outdoors or trying to sleep in the cabs that brought them to the border Monday, they were anxiously awaiting some word from the Canadian immigration officials who stood between them and freedom to live in Canada.

No word came Tuesday as the refugees remained stuck in an immigration limbo, the victims of heightened security at the border in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Monday evening, immigration officials ordered them out of the refugee center near the Peace Bridge, locked its doors and told them that they could not go anywhere until they underwent immigration processing.

There was no hint of when that might happen, so the men went to sleep on benches or the ground, while mothers and children found refuge in a nearby church. Taxi drivers, who had driven the refugees here from Buffalo, shared their cabs with the older men and women.

Early Monday, Christopher Owens had brought the refugees to Canada because there simply was no more room at "the inn."

"The inn" is Vive La Casa, a refugee center at 50 Wyoming Ave. in Buffalo, where Owens is executive director. The shelter often is the last stop for persecuted refugees who have traveled halfway -- or more -- around the world, desperate to reach Canada and, they hope, be given political asylum.

In any given month, more than 5,000 refugees pass through Vive's doors. Some remain just a few days, but many more stay for weeks and even months before they are able to formally apply for political asylum in Canada.

"Vive was already overcrowded," Owens explained, "but with the tragedy in New York City, Canadian officials shut down the processing of refugees for more than a week, and I certainly can understand that." He said Vive has enough beds and cots for 125 people each night. But because of new regulations and job actions by Canadian civil servants, including immigration workers, refugees have had to spend more time at Vive waiting to be processed.

"We have been struggling to give shelter to more than 200 people a night for the last several weeks," he said.

So Owens decided to take matters into his own hands.

"With people sleeping on cots or on the floor of every room in our center," he said, "I decided to select 35 or 40 refugees who had all their papers in order and had the best chance of being admitted to Canada, bring them over and, hopefully, make the Canadian officials aware of our problems at Vive and get the processing to begin again."

It didn't work.

Owens said immigration officials "have only told me they have a huge backlog of refugee applications to take care of and didn't give me a clue as to when my people would be processed."

Not only were the refugees detained, but so were Owens and the cabdrivers.

The refugees are from Colombia, Argentina, Turkey, Eritrea and some former Russian republics.

e-mail: apalazzetti@buffnews.com

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