Walk­ing to a new life

A U.S. back road is route to hope in Canada for many mi­grants

Cape Breton Post - - Perspective - BY WIL­SON RING

They have come from all over the United States, pil­ing out of taxis, push­ing strollers and pulling lug­gage, to the end of a coun­try road in the north woods.

Where the pave­ment stops, they pick up small chil­dren and lead older ones wear­ing Mickey Mouse back­packs around a “road closed” sign, thread­ing bushes, cross­ing a ditch, and fil­ing past an­other sign in French and English that says “No pedes­tri­ans.” Then they are ar­rested.

Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, mi­grants who came to the U.S. from across the globe — Syria, Congo, Haiti, else­where — ar­rive here where Rox­ham Road dead-ends so they can walk into Canada, hop­ing its poli­cies will give them the se­cu­rity they be­lieve the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in the United States does not.

“In Trump’s coun­try, they want to put us back to our coun­try,” said Lena Gunja, a 10-year-old from Congo, who un­til this week had been liv­ing in Port­land, Maine. She was trav­el­ling with her mother, fa­ther and younger sis­ter. “So we don’t want that to hap­pen to us, so we want a good life for us. My mother, she wants a good life for us.”

The pas­sage has be­come so crowded this sum­mer that Cana­dian po­lice set up a re­cep­tion cen­tre on their side of the bor­der in the Que­bec com­mu­nity of Saint-Bernard-de-La­colle, about 50 kilo­me­tres south of Mon­treal, or al­most 480 kilo­me­tres north of New York City.

It in­cludes tents that have popped up in the past few weeks, where mi­grants are pro­cessed be­fore they are turned over to the Canada Bor­der Ser­vices Agency, which han­dles their ap­pli­ca­tions for refuge.

The Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice are adding elec­tric­ity and por­ta­ble toi­lets. A Cana­dian flag stands just in­side the first tent, where the Moun­ties search the im­mi­grants they’ve just ar­rested and check their travel doc­u­ments.

They are also of­fered food. Then shut­tle buses take the pro­cessed mi­grants to their next des­ti­na­tion. Trucks carry their lug­gage separately.

How this spot, not even an of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ing, be­came the favoured place to cross into Canada is any­one’s guess. But once mi­grants started go­ing there, word spread on so­cial me­dia.

Un­der the 2002 Safe Coun­try Agree­ment be­tween the United States and Canada, mi­grants seek­ing asy­lum must ap­ply to

the first coun­try they ar­rive in. If they were to go to a le­gal port of en­try, they would be re­turned to the United States and told to ap­ply there.

But, in a quirk in the ap­pli­ca­tion of the law, if mi­grants ar­rive in Canada at a lo­ca­tion other than a port of en­try, such as Rox­ham Road, they are al­lowed to re­quest refugee sta­tus there.

Many take buses to Platts­burgh, New York, about 32 kilo­me­tres south. Some fly there, and oth­ers take Am­trak. Some­times taxis carry peo­ple right up to the bor­der. Oth­ers are let off up the road and have to walk, pulling their lug­gage be­hind them.

Used bus tick­ets lit­ter the pave­ment, their points of ori­gin mostly blurred by rain that fell on nights pre­vi­ous. One read “Jack­sonville.”

One Syr­ian fam­ily said they flew into New York City on tourist visas and then went to Platts­burgh, where they took a taxi to the bor­der.

The mi­grants say they are driven by the per­cep­tion that the age of Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, with his calls for bans on peo­ple from cer­tain ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries, means the United States is no longer the des­ti­na­tion of the world’s dis­pos­sessed. Tak­ing its place in their minds is the Canada of Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, a mem­ber of his coun­try’s Lib­eral Party.

Most of the peo­ple mak­ing the cross­ing now are orig­i­nally

from Haiti. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion said this year it planned to end in Jan­uary a spe­cial hu­man­i­tar­ian pro­gram en­acted af­ter the 2010 earth­quake that gave about 58,000 Haitians per­mis­sion to stay tem­po­rar­ily in the U.S.

Walk­ing to­ward the bor­der in a group on Mon­day, Me­dyne Milord, 47, orig­i­nally of Haiti, said she needs work to sup­port her fam­ily.

“If I re­turn to Haiti, the prob­lem will dou­ble,” she said. “What I hope is to have a bet­ter life in Canada.”

Jean Ri­gaud Lib­eral, 38, said he had been in the United States for seven months and lived in Florida af­ter he left Haiti. He learned about Rox­ham Road from Face­book and said he thinks “Canada will be bet­ter than Amer­ica.”

“We are not com­fort­able in Amer­ica,” Lib­eral said. “We are seek­ing a bet­ter life; we don’t want to go back to Haiti.”

On the New York side, U.S.

Bor­der Pa­trol agents some­times check to be sure the mi­grants are in the United States legally, but they said they don’t have the re­sources to do it all the time.

Be­sides, said Brad Brant, a spe­cial op­er­a­tions su­per­vi­sor for the U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol, “our mis­sion isn’t to pre­vent peo­ple from leav­ing.”

Small num­bers con­tinue to cross into Canada else­where, but the vast ma­jor­ity take Rox­ham Road. U.S. of­fi­cials said they be­gan to no­tice last fall, around the time of the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, that more peo­ple were cross­ing there.

Francine Dupuis, the head of a Que­bec gov­ern­ment-funded pro­gram that helps asy­lum seek­ers, said her or­ga­ni­za­tion es­ti­mates 1,174 peo­ple over­all crossed into Que­bec last month, com­pared with 180 in July 2016. U.S. and Cana­dian of­fi­cials es­ti­mated that on Sun­day alone, about 400 peo­ple crossed the bor­der at Rox­ham Road.

“All they have to do is cross the bor­der,” Dupuis said. “We can’t con­trol it. They come in by the hun­dreds, and it seems to be in­creas­ing ev­ery day.”

Canada said last week it planned to house some mi­grants in Mon­treal’s Olympic Sta­dium. It could hold thou­sands, but cur­rent plans call for only 450.

In most cases, once the mi­grants are in Canada they are re­leased and can live freely while their claims for refugee sta­tus are pro­cessed, which can take years. Mean­while, they are el­i­gi­ble for pub­lic as­sis­tance.

Brenda Shana­han, the Lib­eral Party mem­ber of Par­lia­ment who rep­re­sents the area, vis­ited the site Mon­day. She is proud of her coun­try for be­ing will­ing to take in the dis­pos­sessed, she said, but there is no guar­an­tee they will be able to stay in Canada.

“It’s not a free ticket for refugee sta­tus, not at all,” Shana­han said.

Op­po­si­tion Con­ser­va­tive law­maker Michelle Rem­pel said the Trudeau gov­ern­ment lacks a plan to deal with the il­le­gal cross­ings, even though a sum­mer spike had been an­tic­i­pated.

“All that we have heard is that we are mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion,” she said. “The gov­ern­ment needs to come up with a plan right away to deal with this,” she said.

It will fur­ther back­log a sys­tem in which some refugees are al­ready wait­ing 11 years for hear­ings, Rem­pel said. Cana­di­ans will ques­tion the in­tegrity of the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem if the “dan­ger­ous trend” of il­le­gal cross­ings con­tin­ues, she said.

Trudeau him­self re­cently said his coun­try has bor­der check­points and con­trols that need to be re­spected.

“We have an open com­pas­sion­ate coun­try, but we have a strong sys­tem that we fol­low,” Trudeau said. “Pro­tect­ing Cana­dian con­fi­dence in the in­tegrity of our sys­tem al­lows us to con­tinue to be open, and that’s ex­actly what we need to con­tinue to do.”

Inan­cieu Mer­ilien, orig­i­nally of Haiti, moved to the United States in 2000 but crossed into Canada late last month. U.S. author­i­ties, he said, are try­ing to scare Haitians by re­fus­ing to guar­an­tee they’ll be able to stay.

“There’s a big dif­fer­ence here. They wel­comed us very well,” he said af­ter leav­ing the Olympic Sta­dium to be­gin look­ing for a home in Mon­treal’s large Haitian com­mu­nity. “They’re go­ing to give us hous­ing in apart­ments. I hope every­thing goes well.”

“We are not com­fort­able in Amer­ica. We are seek­ing a bet­ter life; we don’t want to go back to Haiti.” Mi­grant Jean Ri­gaud Lib­eral

CP PHOTO

A Haitian boy holds onto his fa­ther as they ap­proach an il­le­gal U.S.-Canada bor­der cross­ing point in Saint-Bernard-de-La­colle, Que., Aug. 7.

CP PHOTO

Dulne Bru­tus, of Haiti, tows his lug­gage down Rox­ham Road in Champlain, N.Y., while head­ing to an un­of­fi­cial bor­der sta­tion across from Saint-Bernard-de-La­colle, Que.

CP PHOTO

A Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice of­fi­cer frisks a woman as she is pro­cessed be­fore be­ing turned over to the Canada Bor­der Ser­vices Agency at a tent in Saint-Bernard-de-La­colle, Que.

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