In a private dining room at Zov’s restaurant in Tustin, a Canadian envoy made his pitch to about a dozen immigration attorneys and immigrant rights leaders.
Pablo Rodriguez, a member of Parliament, leaned over from his seat in the middle of the table and asked everyone to spread the word: Please do not cross into Canada illegally.
“Get the facts and make a decision based on the right facts, before leaving your jobs and taking your children out of school and going up there hoping to stay there forever,” Rodriguez said. “Because if you don’t qualify … you will be returned and in this case not to the United States. You will have lost your status and would be returned to your country of origin.”
Worried that anti-immigrant rhetoric and decisions from the Trump administration could drive more people across its border, the Canadian government is trying to nip that in the bud.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dispatched Rodriguez to California.
The whip for the majority Liberal Party in Parliament, Rodriguez arrived in the U.S. a few days after President Trump announced his decision to end temporary protected status of an estimated 200,000 Salvadorans in the country.
His message was not that different from immigration hardliners in the U.S. But it was delivered with a nicer Canadian soft sell.
Rodriguez was a young boy when he arrived in Canada as a political refugee from Argentina. He said he can empathize with those looking north.
He said that Canada is “an open country” and a nation of immigrants. But, he stressed, immigrating to the country needs to be done legally.
“You can’t just come to Canada and cross the border and stay there the rest of your life,” he said. “We want to avoid a humanitarian crisis along the border.”
The Canadian government, Rodriguez said, wants to avoid a repeat of what happened last summer when thousands of Haitians crossed Canada’s southern border “irregularly” after losing temporary protected status in the U.S.
The influx created a massive backlog of refugee claimants.
Last week was Rodriguez’s fourth outreach visit to the U.S. since the fall.
Rodriguez is one of several lawmakers and dignitaries Canada has sent in recent months to combat misinformation about gaining asylum in Canada. Recently, Canadian representatives traveled to Haitian communities in Miami and a Somalian enclave in Minneapolis.
During the meeting in Orange County, Rodriquez wore an infectious smile and an easygoing demeanor as he engaged in what he called a “friendly conversation” with immigration attorneys and immigrant community leaders.
It’s unclear how effective he was.
Some of those at the meeting said Canada seemed awfully hospitable compared to the countries some immigrants had left behind.
Countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and parts of Mexico are among the most dangerous places in the Western Hemisphere.
“If you are facing certain death in your country … Canada seems like a very excellent option,” said George W. Abbes, an immigration attorney.
Rodriguez said that so far there isn’t any indication that more Latin Americans are crossing the border from the U.S. to Canada.
But the Canadian government wants to be proactive, he said. Rodriguez said officials wanted to counter false reports in Latin American media that suggest migrating to Canada is an easy way to find immigration relief.
“We want to have an honest, transparent conversation,” Rodriguez said. “Canada is a very open country but there are rules.”
The meeting comes at a time of considerable anxiety for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, with rumors about huge raids in Northern California, the impending ending of protective status for many Salvadoran immigrants and tough talk from the White House.
At the same time, Trump last week proposed a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, while demanding that Democrats support $25 billion for border security, including his proposed border wall and strict new limits on legal immigration.
Moments before the meeting, Glen Peterson, director of the refugee resettlement agency World Relief’s office in Garden Grove, said he had told one of his staffers he was meeting with a Canadian member of Parliament regarding immigration issues.
“Oh good,” she said. “Are they taking refugees?”
Peterson said the woman is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has protected nearly 700,000 young immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and are currently in the country illegally. In September, Trump decided to terminate the program in six months, forcing Congress to find a solution.
Abbes said he has had conversations with a few clients who are considering a move to Canada.
“It’s just a seed that has been planted but hasn’t blossomed yet,” he said.
While Abbes said he will encourage his clients to legally migrate to Canada, he knows there may be some who will be desperate enough to cross the border and seek asylum. But he said he wouldn’t try to stop them, knowing what some of them face if they go back to their native countries.
“We’ll help them prepare so when they arrive there it is a much smoother transition,” Abbes said. “If the possibility is not good, at least they will know what they are facing over there.”
Abbes recently hired a legal assistant from Canada. Luis Alvarez is a Canadian citizen who served as a paralegal specializing in Canadian immigration law in Toronto before moving to Orange County a few months ago.
Alvarez said Canada is traditionally more welcoming to refugees than the U.S. Very few people end up without legal status in Canada because there are multiple routes to stay, he said.
Although some may not qualify for asylum, there are an appeals process and other legal remedies such as Canadian residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
“For me, I think it’s a super solution for a lot of people,” he said of Salvadorans who are about to lose their protected status. “You just need to know how the system works and retain a good attorney. If I had lost my asylum claim here and was about to be deported, I would for sure make my way up there.”
While in Canada, Alvarez said he helped at least 20 families gain Canadian residency after they lost their asylum cases or faced deportation in the U.S.
Carlos Hernandez was one of them. After more than a decade of living in Raleigh, N.C., the 37-year-old uprooted his life and moved to London, Ontario, where he is currently a legal resident.
In the U.S., Hernandez and his wife Maritza lived a solid middle-class life. He made enough money as a construction worker to buy a three-bedroom home, two vehicles and still have enough for savings. His young children attended good schools.
But he said that in a moment of confusion about the legal process he skipped his asylum hearing in Atlanta.
After a notice of removal showed up for him in the mail in 2009, he lived in constant fear. Trips the family used to take to the beach or water parks got scratched. Driving became strictly reserved for going back and forth from work and errands. His cousin, who lived in Canada, persuaded him to move there.
“It’s a beautiful country and you’ll make solid money,” he told him.
A few months later, the Hernandez family sold all of their belongings, packed into one car and headed to Canada, where they showed up at a port of entry. They said they had family in the country and wanted to apply for asylum.
After losing his asylum case in Canada, he was able to gain legal residency on humanitarian grounds. Hernandez, a certified carpenter, said he makes double what he made in the U.S.
It was the best decision he ever made, Hernandez said. He’s never felt so welcomed.
“The older folks will say hello and ask you questions about where you are from. It feels good,” he said. “I feel like I was born here.”
Follow Cindy Carcamo on Twitter @thecindycarcamo