Two years of working a minimum-wage job in Brooklyn, sharing a one-bedroom apartment, carrying an expired visa and an order from the U.S. government to register, be fingerprinted and photographed has brought Waseem Ahmed to this place: a cold street in Toronto's Little India neighborhood.
Here he sits in a restaurant with a document from the Canadian government that confirms he has applied for refugee status and must report for a hearing. "I destroyed everything I had in New York. I threw out all the things," Ahmed said. "You live two years in one place, you make stuff for your baby. I don't carry -- if you come on bus, you carry one bag."
Ahmed is part of a surge of Pakistanis leaving the United States this year out of fear of a new alien registration system. Many thought that Canada would be a friendlier place, but often Pakistanis find themselves not entirely welcome here, either, and struggling just as hard.
Many have come to Montreal or Toronto, where they look for a friend of a friend of a friend. They make their way to social insurance offices to collect health cards and to welfare offices to collect checks. Some have found their way to Little India, along Gerrard Street, where Pakistani men behind counters make lamb kabobs and wave away strangers in search of them.
Ahmed and his pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter are living in an apartment. Far from the stereotypical impoverished refugee, he nevertheless shares the same anxiety about the future.
Canada's new refugees were often undocumented workers helping to fuel the underground U.S. economy. "The people leaving are not terrorists," said Raja Naseeb Khan, an immigration consultant in Toronto. "They are economic refugees. America was closing its eyes before 9/11 because they were getting cheap workers. Nobody in America will work at gas stations for $4 an hour. These people had a dream to reach a land of prosperity. They were living illegally, but still, it was a better life for them."
Ahmed was one of the early ones who made it into Canada. But since Jan. 30, Canada has been turning away these refugees if they show up unannounced at the border, telling them to return with an appointment to talk to immigration officials.
Canadian border crossings typically handle about eight to 15 refugee claimants a day in late January, said Robert Gervais, spokesman for the federal agency Citizenship and Immigration Canada. But in that period this year, "they were seeing 22 to 56 refugee claimants a day, every day," he said.
Among people seeking that status in Canada, Pakistanis are the largest nationality group, Gervais said. Of the 33,043 claims filed last year, 3,500 were by people from Pakistan.
The busiest border crossing is at Lacolle, in Quebec, which lies at the end of an expressway from New York City, home to a large Pakistani population. Of the 3,500 Pakistanis who sought refugee status in 2002, 1,540 did so at Lacolle, Gervais said.
The numbers began to rise when the United States started enforcing the Immigration and Naturalization Service's new National Security Entry Exit Registration System, which requires registration of men age 16 to 25 visiting the United States from any of more than 20 mostly Muslim countries.
Pakistan, with an estimated 50,000 citizens living illegally in the United States, was listed among those countries. That prompted complaints from Pakistani political leaders, who said their country has been one of the United States' most ardent allies in the fight against Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist organization.
But the United States has been unwilling to exempt Pakistanis. U.S. officials have said that any person living in the United States legally has no reason to fear the registration process, which involves questioning and having photos and fingerprints taken.
The registration system set off a flow to Canada, as people began telling one another that those going in to register were being arrested. And some of the people trying to come to Canada have been arrested by U.S. officials after being turned back at the border, Pakistanis here said.
Others have a hard time as they wait for their appointment with the Canadians. "When they go back to the American side, then they have nowhere to go," said Saleem Janjua, president of the National Federation of Pakistani-Canadians. "There are some volunteer organizations on the [U.S.] side which are already overcrowded. Most of them don't have enough money to support them. I believe, personally, it is a violation of human rights."
When applicants do finally get an appointment with an immigration office, Canadian officials document their identity, take photographs and fingerprints, and cross-reference photos and fingerprints with the FBI. Claimants are interviewed quickly. They must convince border officials that they have a well-founded fear of persecution or face cruel and unusual punishment at home.
"They like to get them fresh, before the story changes," said Michael Campbell, an immigration consultant. The refugees are then subjected to a medical screening for tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. If they are admitted, they can apply for a work authorization. "They are expected to support themselves," Campbell said. "If they can't, the government will provide social assistance." They are also entitled to legal advice.
"For the most part, the Canadian system is gentler and kinder than the INS," Campbell said. "Canada is seen as an easier place to be accepted as a refugee. That is why people come here." More than 55 percent of refugee applicants are accepted.
This summer, a new system called the Safe Third Country Agreement goes into effect, and Canada will not allow people to make refugee claims at the U.S. border. Rather, they will have to make the application at the first "safe" country they reach, a system designed to prevent people from "asylum shopping" for the best resettlement deal. Some people say the agreement will prompt smuggling of people into Canada; others say that's already going on.
Tariq Mahmood, 52, and Anila Anjum, 42, recently arrived at a friend of a friend of a friend's house in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto. They had spent 21 days at the border before they were allowed into Canada. They were living in the United States legally, in Windsor, N.Y., they said, on multiple-entry visas, but decided to come to Canada after word spread of arrests.
"We heard some people had to pay $10,000" as bond to get out of jail, said Mahmood. "We don't have enough money to post bond."
They left their home in New York at 11:30 p.m., he said, each carrying one suitcase. "We were concerned anybody might call the police if they see us leaving," Mahmood said. They didn't tell their employers. They didn't even pick up paychecks they were owed.
They had heard that police were checking buses heading for the border from New York. So they called a taxi. They rode it from Windsor to Buffalo. The ride cost them $1,000. "As soon as they found out where we were going, they charged us double," Mahmood said.
When they arrived at the border, Canadian officials gave them an appointment and sent them back to the United States. "But how can we go back?" Anjum asked. "We have nothing. We stayed in a motel for three weeks. We have no food. Everybody is ripping us off. The taxi charged $100 just to cross the border."