Fleeing Fort Carson, Colo., in an old Camaro, Army deserter Joshua Key had a secret destination: Philadelphia.

After serving seven months in Iraq as a combat engineer, he went on the run during a home leave in 2003 rather than return to a war he had concluded was immoral.

"At the very beginning, I asked a military lawyer, 'What are my choices?' " he recalled recently. "He said, 'You have two: Get back on the plane and go to Iraq, or you're going to jail.' "

Key, then 25, gave himself a third choice, to disappear "into the crowd of a big city," he said. He grew his hair, sprouted a beard, and tried to act as though his time in the Army "never happened." For 14 months, he, his wife, and their four children lived in the Philadelphia area, moving "in total paranoia" between highway rest stops and cheap motels. They survived on her waitressing tips and his day jobs as a welder.

In March 2005, his panic rising, he fled with his family to Canada. He soon discovered it was not the resister's mecca it had been during the Vietnam War, when at least 50,000 draft dodgers fled to "a refuge from militarism," as then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared his nation.

It is not so today for an estimated 250 deserters who since the start of the Iraq war followed the well-worn route, only to be condemned as "bogus" refugees by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and targeted for expulsion.

While most live unobtrusively as illegal immigrants, about 50, like Key, are before Canada's immigration board seeking refugee status in uphill battles.

Crossing the border as an American visitor proved easy for Key. But his bid for sanctuary as a refugee has been much more challenging.

It is rooted in his argument that his duties in Iraq - including traffic stops in which innocent Iraqis were killed, and house raids in which every male taller than 5 feet was taken for interrogation - violated Geneva Conventions.

If forced to return to the Army, he maintains, he'll be punished for deserting over acts he deems illegal. That would constitute persecution, not prosecution, he contends.

To many soldiers who served in Iraq, and families that paid the ultimate price, deserters are treasonous cowards who reneged on a commitment made voluntarily. They weren't drafted. They enlisted or joined reserve units for patriotism, employment, or G.I. benefits, then betrayed their sacred oaths.

Vietnam veteran John Grant, a filmmaker and antiwar activist in Plymouth Meeting, doesn't see it that way. A member of Veterans for Peace, a national nonprofit organization with a Philadelphia chapter, Grant, 61, and a dozen colleagues distributed leaflets outside the Canadian Consulate in Philadelphia last July to support Key and other deserters living in Canada.

"They did sign up," he said. "But maybe they changed their minds."

Although the Army issues arrest warrants for deserters, it does not hunt them. Most hide in plain sight in America, eventually resurfacing to face disciplinary action ranging from letters of reprimand to imprisonment.

"The number of soldiers who desert is less than 1 percent," the Army said in a statement, and most desert because of "personal, family, or financial problems . . . not for political or conscientious objector purposes."

The first expulsion from Canada of an Iraq war deserter was in July. Robin Long, of Boise, Idaho, was court-martialed and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Clifford Cornell, of Mountain Home, Ark., returned voluntarily and was charged with desertion last month. A dozen others have exhausted their appeals; they face imminent expulsion, barring last-ditch filings on "humanitarian and compassionate" grounds.

Although Canada has troops in Afghanistan, it has not contributed its forces to the Iraq war.

By some measures, the Canadian people have been consistently supportive of U.S. draft dodgers and deserters in their midst.

Canadians "have not changed," said Lee Zaslofsky, a Vietnam-era deserter and spokesman for the War Resisters Support Campaign, a Toronto group that aids deserters. He cited a poll last year in which 64 percent of Canadians said they would give U.S. soldiers "the opportunity to remain in Canada."

The Toronto Star editorialized in their favor. Even the House of Commons in 2008 passed a nonbinding resolution to allow deserters to stay.

However, the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to expel them as part of its policy to strengthen immigration controls.

Jeffry House, a Toronto lawyer who represents deserters and initially handled Key's case, said Canada's immigration laws had been toughened in stages since the mid-1970s - for reasons unrelated to soldiers.

"There were a number of experiences that soured people," he said. "Airliners would arrive from India, and 150 people would all claim refugee status. A frigate off the coast would land, with 240 people scrambling ashore."

At American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, Oskar Castro agrees that "Canada right now is not the Canada it used to be."

Castro, coordinator of the Friends' Youth and Militarism project, has counseled soldiers on the run, including one from North Philadelphia who intended to shoot himself in a leg to avoid being sent to Iraq.

"He had a plan to make the injury seem like a random shooting," he said. "I let him know that he would have to make it so debilitating he wouldn't heal properly."

Castro said he told the man, "You can run to Canada or anywhere else in the world and hope you don't get deported. But being able to return on your own terms is not very likely." The last Castro heard, the soldier was planning to turn himself in.

"People say, 'You took the easy way out,' " said Key, speaking by phone last week from his home in Winnipeg. "They don't really know what they are saying."

In Philadelphia, he said, he and wife Brandi made friends, but were tense because "we had to lie to everyone."

"Signing leases, credit checks, anything of that nature" he avoided. "In the back of my mind I thought, 'I did my time and maybe they'll just leave me alone.' That was living in a fantasy land."

When Brandi gave birth to their fourth child, Key feared they would be revealed. So they fled again, approaching Canada's border near Niagara Falls on a March night.

"I had no other papers except for my military ID," Key wrote in an essay that preceded the 2007 publication of his memoir, The Deserter's Tale.

"I already decided that if I was arrested . . . I'd jump off the bridge. I hadn't subjected my family to this fugitive life only to be thrown in prison."

But Canadian officials asked only perfunctory questions, then waved him in, saying, "Have a good time."

The War Resisters Support Campaign arranged initial housing for the family in Toronto's Chinatown. Three days later, Key applied for refugee status.

Over the next three years, the stresses mounted. His mother in Oklahoma was gravely ill, yet he couldn't visit her. His in-laws were impatient to see their grandchildren, now all elementary age. His marriage failed, and six months ago, Brandi took the children back to the United States.

J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, said she discouraged deserters from fleeing to Canada because "there are better options," such as trying for conscientious objector status or various types of honorable discharge, including separation for post-traumatic stress.

Canada, she tells them, "is a forever choice. . . . You won't be able to come back for your parents' funerals, daughter's wedding, grandkids' graduations." Young soldiers rarely comprehend the significance of the choice, she said, because at 20, those watersheds seem "centuries away."

Key is 31, and his next court battle is three months away.

His new attorney, Alyssa Manning, said his was a unique deserter's case because Canada's federal court ruled in July that the immigration board had erred. The mistake: it rejected his request for refugee status because the alleged misconduct he said he witnessed did not rise to the level of war crimes.

The board did not need proof of war crimes to give Canada's protection to Key, the court ruled; violations of the Geneva Conventions would suffice.

The court remanded Key's case for rehearing by a different panel in June - the first incremental victory for any of the deserters.