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Canada turns away Pakistanis fleeing United States

Crowding in advance of INS deadline forces policy change

Pakistanis fleeing the United States walk toward the Canadian border.

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CNN's Maria Hinojosa talks to a group of Pakistanis who are fleeing the U.S. to Canada amid fears they'll be deported back to Pakistan (January 31)
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Canada has begun sending back Pakistanis from the United States who arrive at border crossings seeking refuge.

The crackdown began Thursday, one day after CNN and the Washington Post reported hundreds of Pakistanis, many carrying all their belongings and leading small children, were walking in subfreezing temperatures across the U.S. border to ask for amnesty in Canada.

Men from Pakistan face a February 21 deadline to register with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under a new program that tracks their whereabouts.

Many of the immigrants have visas or full residency in the United States, but they have been panicked by stories that Pakistanis who show up to comply with the new INS requirements have been detained for months on minor technical violations, then deported without their children.

At some border crossings, Canada had been accepting the Pakistani immigrants' asylum applications and letting them enter the country within hours. As of Thursday, though, all border crossing began sending them back to U.S. immigration authorities, said Rene Mercier of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

They are given appointments to return to Canada, where they can be considered for asylum, but U.S. immigration authorities can choose to detain or deport them if they find cause to do so.

Mercier said Canada's policy calls for immigrants to be sent back with appointments to return when border crossings become overwhelmed by one group. The border crossing between Plattsburgh, New York, and Montreal, which had seen about 100 Pakistanis last year, has seen about 200 since January 1.

Ronald Blanchet, who runs that border crossing and implemented the crackdown Thursday, said he sent back 39 Pakistanis that day and another 33 Friday afternoon.

Salvation Army Capt. Dennis Cregan said his Plattsburgh office was packed with Pakistani families sleeping on the floor. He said he was asking agencies in nearby Vermont for help.

He said many of the Pakistanis said family members were detained and deported by U.S. immigration officials after being sent back from Canada. Those who did not have a family member detained planned to return to Canada for their appointments to apply for asylum.

"It's very sad," Cregan said. "They are all over the floor of my church. There are small children."

In Buffalo, New York, an immigration rights group called Vive La Casa had been giving Pakistanis legal representation to help them cross over to Canada and sheltering hundreds as they awaited an opportunity to make their case. Thursday, that group announced: "Immigration laws have been amended in Canada. Overcrowding has also forced us to change our housing policy. Refugees who travel to Vive should be prepared to find independent housing in hotels or hostels."

The refugees began showing up just over a month ago, when Pakistan was added to the list of countries whose nationals must register with U.S. immigration authorities when they are in the United States.

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