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Canada Embassy

People wait outside Canada's Embassy in Mexico City to get information for their visa, on July 14, 2009. The Canadian government announced that travelers from Mexico and the Czech Republic are now required to have visa to get into Canada. (Photo by Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada Tightens Border

After Mexican refugee claims nearly triple, Ottawa establishes new visa requirements.

BY James Flammang

Making visas mandatory lumped potential refugees into the same group as persons seeking immigrant status and ordinary visitors.

While Mexican visitors have faced growing difficulty crossing U.S. borders, Canada has traditionally been more welcoming. Until this summer, that is. On July 13, the Canadian government announced that henceforth, citizens of Mexico and the Czech Republic could no longer enter Canada without a visa.

More than a quarter-million Mexicans visit Canada each year. Even if a Mexican or Czech citizen wants only to catch fish on an Alberta lake, visit relatives in Ontario or consult a Quebec client, he or she must now obtain a Temporary Resident Visa.

Imposition of the visa policy was a “function of the growing number of refugee claims,” says Guillermo Rishchynski, Canada’s Ambassador to Mexico. Illegitimate claims, he says, have become an “unsustainable burden.” Requiring visas was “the only tool available to the government [as] a means of stemming the flood of refugee claims.”

Between 2005 and 2008, Mexican refugee claims grew from about 3,400 to more than 9,400. During those years, more than one-fourth of total claims were made by Mexicans, with nearly 90 percent rejected (versus 44 percent for other countries).

Some 40 percent of Mexican claims were dismissed, according to Rishchynski, and Canada covers the $30,000 cost of evaluating potential refugees. “Canada has this judicial process for investigating claims, which is lengthy,” Rishchynski says.

During the two weeks prior to implementing the new policy, about 400 refugee claims were received from Mexican citizens. That number sank near 20 for the following two weeks.

Making visas mandatory lumped potential refugees–both legitimate and dubious–into the same group as persons seeking immigrant status and ordinary visitors. Immediately after the policy was enacted, the Mexican government issued a statement deploring the decision. In retaliation, it announced the termination of a longstanding agreement that exempted Canadian diplomats and officials from Mexican visa requirements. The change will take effect on October 17.

Mexico City’s left-leaning paper La Jornada reported that Mexican officials knew about the forthcoming policy shift and proposed alternatives that were rejected by Canada. In August, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Guadalajara. Harper blamed Canada’s refugee system for the change, noting that it “encourages bogus claims.”

Canadian law states that all visitors must obtain a Temporary Resident Visa, except for citizens of countries that have been granted an exemption. These include visitors from the United States, Japan, the EU (except Bulgaria, Romania and, now, the Czech Republic) and Japan, among others.

Canada issued some 20,000 visas to Mexicans between mid-July and late August. Applicants need a valid reason for visiting Canada, copies of travel documents and proof of sufficient funds. The visa officer must be convinced that the visit will be temporary, and that the person is in good health and has no criminal record.

Applications are accepted only in Mexico City, but documents may be submitted via a courier service.

Though early reaction was negative, official sources at the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry say “it would be adventurous to call it a furious reaction.” Indignation has arisen from inconvenienced travelers and rejected visa applicants, but “there have not been major consequences.” Following the discussion at the North American Leaders Summit, “the press has lowered its criticism,” the ministry added.

Unless Mexico and the Czech Republic regain their exemptions, citizens of those countries must plan ahead and hope their papers are in order. Even if an arriving traveler possesses a visa, the agent at the port of entry has final authority to deny admission.

James M. Flammang is a veteran independent journalist and editor. Since the 1970s, he's covered the automobile business, contributing to such publications as autoMedia.com, Kelley Blue Book, Consumer Guide, J.D. Power, cars.com, and the Chicago Tribune.

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