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Amid desperation, Haitian-Canadians plead with Ottawa to relax immigration rules

MONTREAL - Haitian-Canadians are pleading with the federal government to further relax its immigration policies as they desperately seek ways to reunite with their broken families.

MONTREAL - Haitian-Canadians are pleading with the federal government to further relax its immigration policies as they desperately seek ways to reunite with their broken families.

A throng spent yet another day waiting for hours outside a Montreal immigration-consulting office Tuesday, armed with little more than hope.

One woman toiling in line conceded that the venture might not yield any results - but she stayed anyway.

"In our situation, we are desperate but we aren't stupid," said the woman, who gave her name only as Edwige, as she stood outside the building near Montreal's Bell Centre.

"Maybe they have information that can help us accelerate our requests. We're not naive, but we have to have hope."

The long, restless lineups outside that office have become a symbol of a community in panic.

One Haitian-born Montreal policeman assigned to control the crowd struggled to fight back tears this week while watching the scene unfold.

The federal government issued a statement Tuesday expressing concern that, amid the crisis, some immigration consultants might be misleading Haitian-Canadians into believing they can speed up the processing times.

Ottawa is telling Haitians that no paid consultant can expedite the process, and asking them to keep in mind that no such application will get special treatment.

Immigrant groups are asking Ottawa for a few things, in turn.

A coalition of immigrant groups pleaded with the federal government Tuesday to relax its admission process.

The group asked the government to extend eligibility for family sponsorship beyond the immediate household, to siblings and close relatives like aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

As it stands, only spouses, children under age 22, parents, grandparents and orphaned minors qualify for family reunification.

In addition to automatic entry for close family, they want more distant relatives - like cousins - to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

They also called on the government to immediately provide permanent resident status to a variety of Haitians in Canada, including asylum-seekers whose deportations have been put on hold, students and other visitors.

Asked at a press conference how many Haitian refugees their proposals might open the door to, they said it was impossible to provide an estimate.

They acknowledged that Ottawa has shown some signs of flexibility in the face of tremendous logistical challenges.

Ottawa has promised to temporarily speed up immigration applications from Haitians with family in Canada.

The government has said that priority consideration will also be given to Canadians who are trying to adopt Haitian children.

And the government has said it will accelerate applications to extend the stay of Haitians already living temporarily in Canada.

Fees for such applications will be waived and temporary residents may apply for work permits.

"We're glad that the government has announced there is going to be an acceleration of family reunification files," said Janet Dench, of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

"However, the feeling strongly is that the measures that have been announced to date are quite inadequate to the event."

They've also asked that all immigration fees be waived during the current crisis.

"Measures were taken in the past to be more flexible and we're asking for it now," said Keder Hyppolite, a community activist and president of the National Council of Citizens of Haitian Origin.

"It's an exceptional situation and we're asking for exceptional measures because everyone is suffering."

Dench said it would be easier to bring people to Canada and deal with the cases here.

On average, processing times at the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince before the natural disaster stood at 15 months.

Dench said it would be inhuman to have people waiting for months in Haiti, especially considering that many people have lost personal documentation and don't have access to a doctor to do the medical checkup required by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.

"Realistically, we can't expect Immigration Canada to come and rescue family members in the next day or two," Dench said.

"However, more realistically, we do have the capacity to be able to respond in significant ways through immigration channels so things work in a matter of months rather than a matter of years."

Dench said it has been done before: the Canadian government showed a willingness to be more flexible after the tsunami hit in south and southeast Asia.

Some Haitian-Canadians have been trying their luck at an immigration consulting office where volunteers had offered, free of charge for three days this week, to go through paperwork to help expedite the process.

The offer was made on Haitian community radio and the response was so overwhelming that many were turned away Monday after waiting in the cold for up to seven hours.

Still, people returned Tuesday to another disorganized lineup in front of the offices of Immigration 911.

Immigration advocates are also telling people to be careful about dealing with anyone not registered with the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants, notaries, or members of a provincial bar association.

But even with the warnings, one woman, Beatrice, said it was worth it to hear out what the consultants might have to offer.

"I figure if they were doing something illegal, the immigration department would have shut them down," said Beatrice, clutching a coffee as she waited patiently for a second consecutive day.

"But it gives us hope that maybe someone can help."