New refugee fast-track could hurt legitimate claimants

A new system for granting refugee status came into force this weekend, allowing claimants from the European Union, Croatia and the United States to have their applications fast-tracked.

The goal of the new rules, according to the federal government, is to weed out bogus cases more quickly, but some worry it doesn't offer legitimate claimants enough time to prepare their cases.

For Maria Yolanda Alvarez-Rivera, this is the first Christmas she's spending with her children after fleeing El Salvador for the United States, where she sought asylum and then entered Canada illegally.

"I fled because I received death threats. I had no choice but to put my children somewhere safe and flee the country to protect myself," Alvarez-Rivera said through an interpreter.

"It was so hard emotionally, it was so hard. But it was the only way that I could leave the country and look for help and find a better future for them."

Alvarez-Rivera wanted to go to Canada because she knew of its policy of reuniting families. While she was granted refugee status in 2009 and was able to get three of her four children into Canada this year, one daughter still remains in El Salvador.

Now she worries she won't be able to get her paperwork together in time to present a case to immigration officials granting her fourth child refugee status.

On Friday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced the current wait time for refugee claimants would be reduced from 600 to between 35 and 60 days.

"This means faster protection and certainty for real refugees and less time for bogus complainants to abuse Canada's generosity," Kenney said.

But immigration lawyer Heather Neufeld said the timeline is too fast for refugees to find a place to live, hire a lawyer and have affidavits and police records sent from their home countries.

The closure of the refugee hearing office in Ottawa is also complicating matters, Neufeld said.

As of April, refugees living in Ottawa have had to travel to Montreal for their hearings.

"People are going to fall through the cracks," said Neufeld. "So we're going to see a lot of negative decisions in cases that are really well-founded, simply because people weren't able to sufficiently prepare in two months."

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