OTTAWA — After a Quebec Conservative MP refused to help migrants in his riding avoid deportation and characterized them as "illegal refugees," a member of their family is calling the comments "offensive" and "ignorant."
Leticia Cruz and her son arrived in Canada via Roxham Road, an unofficial border crossing south of Montreal, in 2018 to join their relatives, said her brother-in-law José Nicola Lopez.
In an interview with The Canadian Press in French, Lopez said Cruz travelled from the U.S. to join family in Canada because she feared being expelled due to policies under the administration of then-president Donald Trump. She also feared a return to El Salvador, he said, where she could have been a target for street gangs.
Returning to the country would be "putting one's life in danger," he said.
Lopez is joining a chorus of federal politicians from other parties who are asking Conservative MP Richard Martel to rethink the comments he made when discussing the family in a Radio-Canada interview published on Tuesday.
"I think he should at least say that it's possible he miscalculated his words and that he should revisit them, and make a public apology," said Lopez, adding that he himself immigrated to Canada 24 years ago and is proud to have since become a citizen.
Liberal ministers and Bloc Québécois and New DemocratMPs roundly criticized Martel for his comments on Tuesday.
Like Cruz, thousands of asylum seekers have entered Canada between official ports of entry in recent years and then made a refugee claim once they were on Canadian soil. Those who arrive at official border crossings are forbidden from doing so under the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.
Bloc MP Mario Simard said Martel, who did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, should not have simply dismissed the family as "illegal" without knowing any details about their story.
Simard said he worked with federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser to help the family avoid deportation earlier this month after Martel declined to do the same.
"It is deeply disappointing to hear that any member of Parliament would refuse to even look at a plea for assistance from families in need simply because of how they came to Canada," Fraser said Tuesday in a written statement provided by his office.
"The decision by Conservative MP Richard Martel to turn his back on a family in need by labelling them as illegal is inconsistent with the values of compassion and inclusivity that we hold dear as Canadians."
Fraser added while debate on immigration on policy is healthy, MPs should take a "humane" approach to the issue, "without resorting to harmful labels and divisive categorization."
Simard, speaking in French, called on Martel to apologize and said he wants to see Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre make it clear that "illegal immigrants" don't exist.
Issues around Roxham Road can be discussed while still showing people humanity, he added.
A spokesman for the party who was asked for comment from Poilievre instead provided a statement by Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus, his Quebec lieutenant.
Paul-Hus said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has "opened the floodgates to unlawful entry" as he fails to address an immigration application backlog.
Conservatives support having an "open, inclusive and diverse country, but also one that protects our borders, respects the rule of law and promotes safety," his statement said.
"Our members of Parliament assist people of all walks of life and support Canadians who are left behind by the Trudeau government while standing for a fair and compassionate immigration system."
Paul-Hus's statement did not address Martel's decision not to assist the family because of their immigration status.
"I would certainly hope that no one would ever discriminate on the basis of refugee status," Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told The Canadian Press during a year-end interview.
"This is one way in which we can stand up for human rights. Canada's a beacon when it comes to welcoming refugees."
Marc Miller, the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and a Montreal-area MP, tweeted in French that Martel's comments lacked "humanity and compassion."
Quebec NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice said if Poilievre is sincere about his recent outreach to cultural communities, he should send a clear message to his MPs "to treat all the refugees equally."
In his first three months as leader, Poilievre has made several trips to the Greater Toronto Area and travelled to Vancouver to meet with new Canadians and members of newcomer communities whose support the Conservatives want to harness.
One of the messages Poilievre has driven home is that the federal party supports immigration and the idea of achieving a Canadian dream through hard work.
"This is really hypocritical," Boulerice said Tuesday. "If he's sincere, he's going to send a clear message to all his MPs to offer services to everyone who needs it."
Boulerice added that Martel's response to the family's request for help is "not a human way to to treat people."
Rudy Husny, a Conservative leadership candidate in the party's 2020 race and political analyst, said in an email that the challenge for Poilievre is striking the right balance "between being compassionate, enforcing the rules and having a fair immigration system."
"Mr. Poilievre needs to find this balance to win the hearts and minds of Canadians," Husny said.
Husny pointed out that the Roxham Road crossing remains a major issue in Quebec, with Premier François Legault telling reporters it was among the issues he raised on Tuesday when he spoke to Trudeau, who spent the day in Montreal.
Legault said the thousands of people entering through Roxham Road places extra pressure on the province's public services.
Figures provided by the federal Immigration Department show there were more than 33,000 asylum seekers apprehended by the RCMP at irregular border crossings in Quebec between January and October, the latest month for which data is available.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2022.
— With files from Jim Bronskill.
Stephanie Taylor and Emilie Bergeron, The Canadian Press