Migrants flee into Canada via remote road
CHAMPLAIN, N.Y. — Thousands of migrants — from Syria, Congo, Haiti, and elsewhere — are fleeing the United States for Canada via a remote back road in upstate New York, hoping Canadian policies will give them the security they believe the political climate in the U.S. does not.
They come from all over the United States, piling out of taxis, pushing strollers and pulling luggage. Where the pavement stops at the end of Roxham Road, 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.
The flow of travelers continues seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
“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 traveling 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 center on their side of the border in the Quebec community of Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, about 30 miles south of Montreal, or almost 300 miles 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.
The Canadian military said Wednesday that about 100 soldiers began arriving to prepare a site for tents to accommodate almost 500 people. The soldiers will also install lighting and heating equipment.
How this spot, which is not an official border crossing, became the favored 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, N.Y., about 20 miles 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.
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 under Republican President Donald Trump, with his ban on travelers 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.
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 that 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.”
“All they have to do is cross the border. We can’t control it. They come in by the hundreds, and it seems to be increasing every day.”
— Francine Dupuis, the head of a Quebec government-funded program that helps asylum seekers
A Haitian boy holds onto his father Monday as they approach an illegal crossing point, staffed by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, from Champlain, N.Y., to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec.