Mi­grants, fear­ing Trump, try for asy­lum in Canada

Flee­ing a ‘changed’ U.S., refugees crowd il­le­gal Que­bec cross­ing point.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT - By Alexan­dra Zavis

HEM­MING­FORD, CANADA — Every hour or so, a taxi pulls up at the end of a re­mote coun­try road in up­state New York and de­posits an­other load of anx­ious and weary pas­sen­gers.

From here, it is steps across a gully to the Canadian province of Que­bec, where po­lice stand ready to ar­rest any­one who en­ters il­le­gally.

Un­de­terred, the trav­el­ers drag their suit­cases across a makeshift dirt bridge, past a sign that de­clares in French and in English, “No pedes­tri­ans,” and sur­ren­der to the wait­ing of­fi­cers.

They are part of a surge of asy­lum seek­ers from Haiti, Su­dan, Tur­key, Eritrea and be­yond who have been stream­ing into Canada in re­cent months, hop­ing for refuge they believe will be de­nied them in the United States.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Po­lice in­ter­cepted nearly 3,000 of the asy­lum seek­ers at this one il­licit cross­ing in July, nearly four times the num­ber ap­pre­hended in June. In the first two weeks of Au­gust, 3,700 more were taken into cus­tody.

“We’ve never seen such num­bers com­ing in,” Claude Cas­tonguay, a spokesman for the force, told re­porters. “They’re un­prece­dented.”

Though the num­bers have

dropped in the last few weeks, the in­flux has strained Canada’s im­mi­gra­tion and refugee ser­vices, leav­ing of­fi­cials scram­bling to find places to shel­ter them all and caus­ing month­s­long de­lays in the pro­cess­ing of asy­lum claims.

Canadian au­thor­i­ties set up tents at the border and in­stalled rows of cots at the Mon­treal Olympic Sta­dium — a jar­ring sight for many Cana­di­ans, who say the scenes are rem­i­nis­cent of a war zone. Schools, con­fer­ence halls and an aban­doned hos­pi­tal were also con­verted into tem­po­rary shel­ters.

The rush poses a po­lit­i­cal prob­lem for the Lib­eral govern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, who faces a back­lash from op­po­si­tion par­ties and anti-im­mi­grant groups be­cause of his wel­com­ing stance to­ward refugees.

“We’re giv­ing our coun­try away to other peo­ple,” said Buddy Hamp­ton, an 80-year-old drum­mer from Hem­ming­ford, the com­mu­nity on the Canadian side of the border where most of the mi­grants are ar­riv­ing. He said that he sym­pa­thized with those seek­ing a bet­ter life, but that Cana­di­ans, too, were strug­gling.

Govern­ment of­fi­cials have taken to the press and so­cial me­dia to try to dis­pel the no­tion — com­mon among the mi­grants — that any­one who re­quests asy­lum in Canada will au­to­mat­i­cally re­ceive permanent res­i­dence.

“You will not be at an ad­van­tage if you choose to en­ter Canada ir­reg­u­larly,” Trudeau said at a news con­fer­ence. “You must fol­low the rules, and there are many.”

Po­lice say they first no­ticed an in­crease in il­le­gal cross­ings around the time of the U.S. elec­tion in Novem­ber, and many of the asy­lum seek­ers say they have lost hope that Amer­ica will ac­cept them as long as Pres­i­dent Trump re­mains in of­fice.

Some are from the six pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries — Iran, Libya, So­ma­lia, Su­dan, Syria and Ye­men — sub­ject to a U.S. travel ban im­posed by Trump. But they also in­clude many other for­eign na­tion­als who are fright­ened by his crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and vows to slash the num­ber of im­mi­grants ad­mit­ted to the U.S. law­fully. The largest share — about 85 per­cent of those cur­rently ar­riv­ing — are Haitians who lacked visas to en­ter the U.S. or over­stayed the ones they had.

“We went through an epic jour­ney to reach the United States — peo­ple died on the way,” said Louina St. Juste, a 42-year-old fa­ther of five from Haiti who passed through 11 coun­tries, brav­ing vast rain forests and treach­er­ous rivers on a three-month trek from Brazil to San Diego last year. “And now they want to de­port us?”

He said he can’t return to Haiti, a coun­try as­sailed by nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence, vi­o­lent crime and a deadly cholera out­break. So he flew to New York and caught a Grey­hound bus to Platts­burgh, about six hours to the north. From there, it was a 20-minute taxi ride past corn­fields and ap­ple or­chards to Rox­ham Road, the now-well-known spot in the town of Cham­plain where he en­tered Canada.

So many peo­ple are us­ing this spot that the Canadian po­lice set up tents on their side of the fron­tier to search the mi­grants and ver­ify they don’t pose a threat. The tents are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As the nights started get­ting cooler, heat­ing was added. If the in­flux con­tin­ues, there are plans to re­place the tents with trail­ers.

From there, the mi­grants are loaded into mini­vans for the 10-minute drive to the near­est of­fi­cial port of en­try at St. Bernard de La­colle, where the army set up more tents to house them while they wait to file asy­lum claims — a process that was tak­ing up to four days at the height of the in­flux. Even­tu­ally they are bused to shel­ters in Mon­treal, where they com­plete the ap­pli­ca­tion process and are given help find­ing more permanent hous­ing.

Although cross­ing at Rox­ham Road is il­le­gal, the ex­changes that take place there be­tween po­lice and mi­grants have the feel­ing of a well-re­hearsed script.

A man from Haiti who looks to be in his 20s hops out of a taxi on the U.S. side of the border car­ry­ing only what he can fit into a small back­pack.

A Canadian of­fi­cer calls out to him in French and in English. The le­gal port of en­try is 3 miles away, the of­fi­cer says. This is an il­le­gal cross­ing point. If he crosses here, he will be ar­rested.

“I pre­fer to go to pri­son,” the man tells the of­fi­cer.

Oth­ers seem con­fused by the of­fi­cer’s warn­ing and hes­i­tate. But even­tu­ally, al­most ev­ery­one crosses, some with their hands in the air.

The mi­grants know that if they request asy­lum at an of­fi­cial port of en­try, they will be turned back and told to ap­ply in the U.S.

The rules, en­shrined in a 2002 agree­ment be­tween the U.S. and Canada, are based on the prin­ci­ple that those flee­ing war and per­se­cu­tion should pe­ti­tion for pro­tec­tion in the first safe coun­try they reach. But in a quirk of in­ter­na­tional law, once the mi­grants set foot on Canadian soil, legally or not, they can ap­ply for des­ig­na­tion as refugees there.

Mi­grant rights ad­vo­cates op­pose the agree­ment, ar­gu­ing that it en­cour­ages peo­ple to make dan­ger­ous il­le­gal cross­ings. Two men from Ghana lost most of their fin­gers to frost­bite last win­ter after get­ting lost in waist­deep snow while ne­go­ti­at­ing the icy prairies along the U.S. border with the Canadian province of Man­i­toba.

It’s a mys­tery how peo­ple from as far away as Africa and the Mid­dle East first dis­cov­ered Rox­ham Road, which cuts through thick for­est and is lined with a hand­ful of trailer homes. But once they did, word spread quickly on so­cial me­dia about how easy it is to en­ter Canada here.

The num­bers cross­ing here ramped up dra­mat­i­cally after the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion said in May that it plans to with­draw the “tem­po­rary pro­tected sta­tus” that has al­lowed some 58,000 pre­vi­ously un­doc­u­mented Haitians to live legally in the U.S. since an earth­quake dev­as­tated their is­land in 2010.

Then-Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John Kelly ex­tended this spe­cial re­prieve through Jan. 22, 2018, but urged ben­e­fi­cia­ries to use the time to pre­pare to go home. The an­nounce­ment spread panic among Haitians in the U.S. who are con­cen­trated on the East Coast, within easy reach of the Que­bec border.

“You have to un­der­stand, th­ese are peo­ple who were al­ready well-es­tab­lished in an­other coun­try,” said Chan­tal Isme, who serves on the board of di­rec­tors for the Mai­son d’Haiti, a com­mu­nity cen­ter in Mon­treal that has been help­ing new ar­rivals com­plete im­mi­gra­tion pa­per­work, rent apart­ments and en­roll their chil­dren in school.

“Most of th­ese peo­ple were work­ing, and some of them were do­ing very well,” she said. “There were chil­dren who were born over there and have no roots in Haiti.”

What many don’t re­al­ize, how­ever, is that Canada ended its own tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion for Haitians in 2014, and only those who can show they face a risk of per­se­cu­tion or tor­ture will be al­lowed to re­main.

The Im­mi­gra­tion and Refugee Board of Canada ac­cepted about 50 per­cent of the refugee claims made last year by Haitians. More than 500 Haitian na­tion­als have been de­ported since Jan­uary, most of them to the U.S., where they still had at least tem­po­rary le­gal sta­tus.

St. Juste, who had been liv­ing in San Diego, is keep­ing his hopes up.

When he pre­sented him­self to of­fi­cials at the U.S.-Mex­ico border, he was placed in de­ten­tion for six days, then re­leased with no idea where to go. He said he has been treated far bet­ter in Canada.

“Here, they welcome us. They give us food, a place to stay. I want to spend the rest of my life here!” he said out­side the Mon­treal Olympic Sta­dium, where he was liv­ing with about 400 other asy­lum seek­ers.

In a few days, St. Juste was ex­pect­ing to col­lect his first govern­ment as­sis­tance check — typ­i­cally about $670 a month for a sin­gle per­son or $1,200 for a fam­ily of four — and move into an apart­ment.

Not long ago, a black SUV pulled up to the or­ange traf­fic cones at the end of the Rox­ham Road. Abubaker Ahmed, an Uber driver from New York City, said he had friends with him who had run into po­lit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties in Su­dan and wanted to cross into Canada.

There was a time when Ahmed would have ad­vised the friends — a cou­ple and their two chil­dren, aged 4 and 7 — to ap­ply for asy­lum in the U.S. But not any­more, Ahmed said as he un­loaded their lug­gage. “Amer­ica has changed.”

The hus­band, who said he would be re­turn­ing to Su­dan to tend to busi­ness in­ter­ests there, scooped up the chil­dren for a farewell squeeze, then wiped tears from his face as he watched them walk to the border with their mother.

PHO­TOS BY CAROLYN COLE / LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Sgt. Michael Har­vey (cen­ter) of the Royal Canadian Mounted Po­lice stops a group of Haitians be­fore they at­tempt to cross the border at Hem­ming­ford il­le­gally from Cham­plain, N.Y. About 85 per­cent of mi­grants at the cross­ing are from Haiti.

A young boy is searched by a Royal Canadian Mounted Po­lice of­fi­cer at Hem­ming­ford after cross­ing at Cham­plain, N.Y. Po­lice have set up tents at the en­try site that are staffed around the clock. In the first two weeks of Au­gust, 3,700 refugees were taken into cus­tody.

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