A growing source of Canadian asylum-seekers: US citizens whose parents were born elsewhere

Jokes about moving to Canada became common among progressives in the U.S. during Donald Trump’s presidential bid. When he won, a spike in U.S. citizens seeking information about how to relocate crashed Canada’s immigration website.

I’m a scholar of Canadian immigration law and will soon become the director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University in Toronto. My friends and colleagues in the United States, who still make those jokes, are often surprised when I fill them in on how U.S. immigration patterns in Canada have changed during the Trump administration.

Overall, the number of U.S. citizens who have immigrated to Canada for any reason rose from 7,522 in 2015 to 9,100 in 2017. In contrast with this modest 21% increase, the number of U.S. citizens applying for refugee protection during the same two years spiked by more than 1,000%. It grew from 69 in 2015 to as much as 869 in 2017.

The more than 1,500 U.S citizens who have sought a safe haven in Canada are mainly the children of people fearing deportation due to a change of their immigration status after spending years in the United States. Even with the recent increase, they still account for a small share of total applicants for refugee protection in Canada – only 1% in 2018, for example. Nonetheless, the dramatic growth in the number of refugee claims by U.S. citizens illustrates some of the differences between Canadian and U.S. immigration policies.

Long history

People from the U.S. have been seeking asylum in Canada since at least the 18th century.

Fearing mistreatment in the newly established United States, and drawn by offers of free land, as many as 100,000 British Loyalists fled to what is now Canada during and after the American Revolution.

Many enslaved people seeking liberty via the Underground Railroad, prior to the Civil War, headed to Canada. Around 20,000 to 40,000 made lives for themselves there.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some 100,000 young U.S. men, many with wives and children, came to Canada during the Vietnam War to avoid being drafted into military service – or in some cases after deserting. Canada enacted a law that let these “draft dodgers” immigrate with lawful status. Even though President Jimmy Carter issued a blanket pardon for them when he took office, about half remained in Canada.

More recently, dozens of U.S. soldiers who had voluntarily enlisted in the military and served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sought asylum in Canada to avoid jail time when they deserted because they came to object to those wars. This time, the Canadian government denied most of their refugee claims, saying that they could have possibly qualified for conscientious objector status back home. However, the Canadian public expressed substantial support for these war resisters.

The artist Naomi Lewis and war resister organizer Isaac Romano unveiling a statue commemorating the welcoming of U.S. military draft dodgers to Canada during the Vietnam War. Reuters/Andy Clark

Change of status

The more recent wave of asylum applicants is related to changes in U.S. immigration policy.

Before Trump took office, the U.S. had granted hundreds of thousands of immigrants without papers from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, El Salvador and other countries temporary protected status. These policies protected formerly undocumented immigrants from deportation and let them work legally.

The Trump administration has tried to end temporary protected status for eligible immigrants of many nationalities, despite evidence that many of their countries remained dangerous or their economies were still too unstable for them to return.