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Stranded on their long road to freedom, asylum-seekers wait and cope in Buffalo

The world continues to bring us its tired, its poor, its huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

And increasingly, they are getting stranded in Buffalo.

The city, long a way station for those seeking political asylum either in Canada or the United States, has become a semipermanent home for hundreds of asylum-seekers struggling to cope with changes on both sides of the border.

A 2004 agreement between Canada and the United States and a 2010 tightening of immigration policy in Canada have made it tougher for refugees to find a new home there.

And in the United States, refugees have to cope with a huge backlog of cases at U.S. Immigration Court in Buffalo, where a hiring freeze means that one judge is now handling all the cases that used to keep two judges busy.

Some 2,015 cases were pending at the court at the end of last September, up nearly 7 percent from a year earlier.

The human toll of that backlog can be seen at Vive, the nation's largest refugee shelter, located in a former Catholic school on Wyoming Avenue on Buffalo's East Side.

"People used to be here for two or three weeks on their way to Canada," said Michael E. Marszalkowski, an immigration attorney who serves as president of Vive's board. "Now they're here six months, a year. Every night, all of our 118 beds are just about filled."

Dozens of other asylum-seekers are doubling up with friends and relatives in crowded apartments across the city.

Many of their stories are like that of a 29-year-old man from the Democratic Republic of Congo who, fearing reprisals from ethnic rivals in his home country, asked to be identified only as Ken.

Feb. 15 marked the one-year anniversary of Ken's arrival in the United States. The following month, he arrived at Vive, where he hoped to stay only briefly while he waited for acceptance into Canada.

A year later, his attitude has changed.

"I've given up on Canada," Ken said.

That's because he's the living consequence of changes in Canada-U.S. refugee policy dating from 2004 that have frayed Canada's longtime reputation as a welcoming haven for asylum-seekers.

A tall, lanky man wearing a nondescript T-shirt, pants and pink flip-flops, Ken told his story in a tone of weariness and frustration.

He left the Democratic Republic of Congo because of the bloodshed between his tribe, the Tutsis, and its rival, the Hutus.

"My father, my mother, one brother and two sisters were ambushed by Hutu rebels from Rwanda in June 2004," he said. "They were butchered with machetes. If they shoot you, they say that's a favor because it is a quicker death. They want you to cry. Bullets cost money."

Ken, two younger brothers and an aunt were several miles away, trying to make their way to safety at the time of the attack, and they finally made their way to a refugee camp in neighboring Rwanda.

The family later split, with the aunt and Ken's brothers going to a refugee camp in Burundi, and Ken, the oldest sibling, deciding to try to move to Canada, where an uncle is living in Montreal.

But because of Canadian policy changes, he ended up in Buffalo for far longer than he would have imagined.

Back in the old days, he could have gone to Canada and waited for the country to adjudicate his claim there. But in 2004, Canada and the United States signed a Safe Third Country Agreement that bars new arrivals in either country from entering the other to seek asylum.

"They've closed the door to a lot of people," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, in Montreal, who added that the new policy "has been good for smugglers" who sneak immigrants across the border.

Refugees from the world's most troubled countries -- including Ken's homeland -- enjoyed an exception from that policy for years.

But in July 2010, Canada suddenly and inexplicably ended that exemption, meaning that when Ken arrived in Buffalo a year ago, he would have to be here awhile.

>Long wait for court date

Ken didn't get an appointment with Canadian immigration officials until last September -- and that interview at the Peace Bridge didn't go well. His answers about his family history did not match those of his uncle living in Canada, so the Canadian officials rejected his claim on the spot.

"I asked why, and they said my uncle gave opposite answers," Ken explained. "They had my uncle on the phone during my interview. There was confusion over the names. My grandfather had multiple names."

Such rejections come as no surprise to immigration lawyers, who have noticed a tougher approach to asylum claims in Canada in recent years that goes beyond the policy changes.

"I'm telling clients, 'You can stop treating Canada like it's the be-all and end-all,' " said Sophie Feal, supervising immigration attorney at the Volunteer Lawyers Project in Buffalo. "There are plenty of denials of refugee status in Canada."

Ken's rejection meant that U.S. officials took him to the federal detention facility in Batavia, where he waited a month to see an immigration judge, who set a release bond at $5,000. The judge later lowered it to $1,500, and the uncle posted the bond, meaning that Ken was back at Vive by November and ready to apply for asylum in the United States.

"I'm praying I get asylum here," said Ken, who has a prelaw degree and hopes to become a lawyer who can aid other asylum-seekers.

But that's going to take awhile, too.

Buffalo had two Immigration Court judges until last July, when Judge Michael Rocco retired, leaving the entire caseload in the hands of Judge Philip J. Montante Jr.

That's because the Justice Department implemented a budget-driven hiring freeze in January 2011. That means a long wait for anyone with a case before the court, which used to be able to schedule hearings within a few months.

"Now it's taking 18 months to get a court date -- and it's getting worse," said Marszalkowski, of Vive.

>'Hard to build cases'

The changes in Canada and the court backup in the United States have put tremendous pressure on organizations such as Vive -- and on the asylum-seekers themselves.

"We just had someone do six years here at Vive before being granted U.S. asylum," said Sister Beth Niederpruem, a Franciscan nun who works at Vive.

Other refugees find lodging with church groups, or in apartments with seven or eight others from the same cultural background, Marszalkowski said.

"There's more of a strain on housing," he said.

And it could get worse.

That's because in June, Canada is set to put in place yet another set of new regulations on asylum-seekers that, some experts say, could drive even more refugees to the United States.

The new "balanced refugee program" aims to cut Canada's backlog of 42,000 refugee cases by setting a series of tough new deadlines. Asylum applicants would have to be given a hearing within 90 days of filing their claims, and most appeals would be heard within 120 days.

"These changes will result in a streamlined system that will generate faster decisions, faster removals of failed claimants and in significant savings to taxpayers," said Bill Brown, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Canadian immigration lawyers aren't so sure, though, that the changes will be beneficial to asylum-seekers.

"It will be very hard to build cases, given the timelines under the new system," said Roderick McDowell, a recently retired immigration lawyer in Fort Erie, Ont.

That's because it can take months for a lawyer just to win the confidence of -- and get the straight story from -- an asylum-seeker, McDowell said.

For example, he said, a woman seeking asylum may deny that she had been raped in her home country if her husband were with her while talking to an attorney. It would take time, and a private meeting between the wife and the lawyer, to win such an admission -- which could be key to an asylum case.

Embassy magazine, a Canadian publication covering international issues, reported earlier this month that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's administration may seek to change the new policy before it takes effect.

But even if that happens, immigration experts said, more and more asylum-seekers are likely to be looking to the United States as their new home.

>'More of a human cost'

Among such asylum-seekers is a 21-year-old man from the Kurdistan region of Iraq who asked to be identified only as Henry. He stands as living proof that Canada isn't the welcoming home for refugees that it was once thought to be.

Henry is at Vive now after coming to the United States on a student visa. He's afraid to return to his home country because he has converted from Islam to Christianity.

"When I came to Vive, I asked, 'Should I go to Canada or stay here?' " he said. "I was told that if I didn't have a relative in Canada, I couldn't get in.

"I said, 'I'm running from my relatives.' "

Noting that Christians face persecution in many parts of the Middle East, Henry said he lives in fear of returning to Kurdistan.

"I need protection," he said. "I couldn't go back. My biggest problem is my family. I'm sure they might kill me. I'm from a traditional Muslim family. They do not understand religious freedom. They think I've brought shame on them. I don't have a problem with them, but they have a problem with me."

Henry's chances of winning asylum in the United States are good, Marszalkowski said -- but again, it could take a long time.

"There's more of a human cost now," Marszalkowski added, as asylum-seekers anxiously wait for months or years for their cases to be resolved.

"I think they are accepting of it -- but they're getting frustrated, too."

email: jzremski@buffnews.com and lmichel@buffnews.com