With an increasingly aging population, a relatively low birth rate and a shortage of labourers and skilled workers, Canada has been looking to immigrants from other countries to fulfill its needs.
What might surprise many is that Mexico has become one of those countries, with Mexican migration to Canada skyrocketing in recent years. Another surprise is that refugees from Mexico, a peaceful democratic country, are fleeing to Canada in increasing numbers.
In 2005, the top five countries of origin for refugee protection claims made in Canada were Mexico, China, Colombia, Sri Lanka and India.
This lumps Mexico in with countries that have repressive regimes or are beset by war and strife, none of which are true for the continent's northernmost Latin country. So what gives?
Violence from drug cartels, government corruption, increasing crime, and police graft are some of the reasons, says Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of the Faithful Companions of Jesus Refugee Centre (FCJ), an advocacy group for refugees based in Toronto.
"The situation in Mexico is very chaotic and has been deteriorating gradually, and public security for citizens is generally very bad," says Rico-Martinez.
Another reason is that Mexicans don't need a visa to enter Canada, so they come hoping to get a work permit and find a job, only to discover that they have to return to their own country to apply for a work permit. Having invested everything they have to get here, they can't afford to go back, so in many cases they're forced to file a refugee claim.
And lately a new trend has been manifesting, says Rico-Martinez, with educated, middle class professionals increasingly showing up at FCJ looking for help.
"Originally, the majority of Mexicans were poor people that were very marginalized, coming from problematic areas with violence and poverty. But recently, even the middle class are having serious problems in different ways and are now fleeing."
In 1996 according to IRB, 946 refugee claims were made by Mexicans, 105 of which were accepted. A decade later, 4,948 claims were filed, with 931 accepted. Because of its civil war, Colombia has the highest rate of acceptance of refugees in Canada. Mexico's rate of acceptance, at about 29 per cent, is "decent," says Rico-Martinez.
South of the border, a bill that would have granted amnesty to the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants, most of whom are Mexican, was killed by the Senate in June. The immigration debate that has been raging for some time in the U.S. has of late taken on a somewhat hostile tone toward Latino immigrants, which may be prompting more Mexicans to consider Canada as a refuge.
As well, Mexican/U.S border security has been tightened post 9/11, and America has been accepting less Mexican immigrants and refugees, which may also have a bearing on why so many are heading for Canada, says Maria Christina Garcia, professor of history at New York's Cornell University.
Garcia says it's much harder for refugees to secure asylum in the U.S. than in Canada; while the U.S. has historically brought in more refugees, their acceptance rate is low. "The Canadians have been much more generous offering asylum than the U.S.," she says.
A large percentage of Mexicans claiming refugee status in Canada are women fleeing spousal abuse and homosexuals escaping what they say is widespread discrimination. These groups have a very high rejection rate by IRB, says Richard Mueller, an economist at the University of Lethbridge.
In his 2005 study on Mexican immigration, Mueller said the number of Mexicans in Canada has been growing rapidly since the mid-1990s, in part because of the return of the descendents of Canadian Mennonites who had emigrated to Mexico.
Following attempts to impose mandatory English-language school attendance on their children, and because of animosity over their exemption from military service, between 6,000 and 7,000 Mennonites left Canada for Mexico in the 1920s. Thanks to provisions in NAFTA that ease the entrance requirements for Mexican nationals, many returned during the 1980s and 1990s.
It has been estimated that about 40,000 Latin-American born Mennonites and their descendants now live in Canada. According to Mueller's study, between 1991 and 2001 the number of permanent and temporary residents from Mexico almost doubled, rising from 22,035 to 42,720. The number of Mexican students coming to study in Canada is also steadily increasing.
"Mexicans coming here aren't just seasonal agricultural workers," says Mueller. "There are a lot of educated Mexicans coming up as well."
It's unknown how many undocumented Mexican workers are in Canada, as Citizenship and Immigration Canada isn't keeping tabs on that. Mueller says that with direct flights between Mexico City and most major Canadian cities, and the fact that Mexicans don't need a visa to enter the country "it's easy for them to sneak in here if they so choose."
While Canada has imposed visa requirements on Argentines, Zimbabweans and Costa Ricans as a way to restrict the flow of refugees coming into the country, Rico-Martinez doesn't see that happening for Mexicans just yet, and that's because Mexico is becoming an ever-stronger trading partner with Canada.
The "three amigos"—Prime Minister Stephen Harper, President George Bush and President Felipe Calderon—are meeting in Montebello, Quebec on August 20 to ratify an agreement called the Security and Prosperity Agreement of North America (SPP).
This agreement was initiated by Harper, Bush and former Mexican president Vicente Fox in Texas in 2005, and is designed to work much like the European Union, assimilating trade, economic concerns and security considerations between the three countries.
Because of this, says Rico-Martinez, "there's not even a discussion of imposing visas."
"The situation with trade and economics is so good between the two countries, so I think Canada is willing to swallow the maybe 5,000 or 6,000 refugee calls that are now going to come.
"If we get up to 10,000 or 12,000 per year the policy may be reviewed, but so far there is not an intention to impose a visa."