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Immigration Minister Jason Kenney besieged by critics during BC visit

By the time Jason Kenney began his speech yesterday morning in Surrey, the Citizenship and Immigration minister had been confronted at least four times during his short B.C. visit -- lambasted by critics he retorted were "extremists" and "anarchists."

At a private fundraiser at the swanky Joe Fortes restaurant Monday, activists ambushed Kenney as he arrived, unguarded, on foot. Visibly flustered, Kenney fled into an alley until his bodyguards arrived to escort him through the kitchen entrance. Inside, The Tyee observed as a second group -- seated at a table upstairs -- launched a salvo of heckling about the impacts of recent cuts to refugee medical coverage before being ejected.

The No One Is Illegal (NOII) activists are among a growing chorus of groups -- from doctors to lawyers and non-profit agencies -- raising alarm over automatic detention of asylum-seekers, faster deportations and fewer appeals for claimants from countries Kenney deems safe.

"With Bill C-31, we've seen stricter controls, the detention of refugees, and putting women and children fleeing domestic violence at greater risk," said NOII member Tracey Jastinder Mann. "Refugees we're working with... will no longer receive their radiation treatment or long-term support after critical illnesses.

"When a government with so much power abuses that power and harms individuals, we need to respond. People aren't going to be passive and allow these policies to pass. In any way we can resist, we will."

Kenney highlighted changes he called essential to make immigration more efficient. Citing enormous application backlogs and high unemployment rates among immigrants, he said he'll offer businesses more say in who migrates and crack down on fraud.

When The Tyee asked him about the legality of refugee detention measures in the recently passed Bill C-31, Kenney responded that the new laws are "more open" than comparable ones in Australia and the U.S.

"We're very confident that it's Charter-compliant," Kenney responded. "The bottom line is we need to discourage human smugglers from targeting Canada.

"Every year, thousands of people die in smuggling operations around the world. We need to send a message to the potential customers of smuggling syndicates: 'Don't pay a smuggler to come to Canada -- you're putting your life in jeopardy. Try to come a different way, a legal way.'"

Kenney slammed protestors' attempts to block his entrance to the Surrey Board of Trade event. In fact, protesters had once again infiltrated the guest tables. Mann, herself seated inside, interjected loudly the moment Kenney spoke.

"No One Is Illegal is basically led by Black Bloc anarchists who believe that Canada is an illegitimate state, and that we should have no limits on immigration -- we should not even deport convicted, violent criminals," Kenney told reporters after. "So they are, by definition, extremists.

"I take the fact they're protesting me to heart. It's confirmation that we're on the right track."

Mann dismissed Kenney's comments, saying other cabinet members have lobbed similar "extremist" charges at environmentalists and other critics.

"He's trying to paint everyone with a broad brush," she said. "Anyone who's coming up with legitimate criticism of his policies is labeled an extremist.

"Using those broad strokes, without responding to the key issues, is just a way of deflecting."

Jinny Sims, the New Democrat Critic for Immigration, Citizenship and Multiculturalism, said Kenney is "treating people from other countries almost as suspect, almost like they're all terrorists or they're all coming here to abuse our system." In an interview with The Tyee, she challenged the reforms' legality.

"Bill C-31, which creates two tiers of refugees, goes against the Charter," Sims said. "It also goes against UN conventions (which) actually recognize the legitimate right of people to come and seek asylum.

"It's very egregious that... depending on which tier you're in, you're going to have different rights."

Sims said new provisions -- allowing the minister to jail asylum-seekers for up to a year if deemed "irregular" -- are devastating to refugees and Canada's reputation.

"When refugees arrive here ... they're coming from some pretty dangerous backgrounds," she said. "Some of them are fleeing for their lives; some of them have been tortured, raped and all the atrocities of war and conflict.

"What are we going to do with them when they come here? We're going to put them in prison. I want you to think about the psychological impact of that."

Kenney admitted his changes are "dramatic," but argued that detention centres are humane.

"They are typically -- I've visited two or three -- they used to be hotels with good living conditions," he told The Tyee. "They're not prisons; they're not jails.

"Anyone can leave immigration detention any time they want -- they just have to leave Canada."

David P. Ball is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.

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