Im­mi­grants cross­ing into Canada from N.Y. get help

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Tim Craig The Wash­ing­ton Post

CHAM­PLAIN, N.Y. — Omer Ma­lik knew he had to slip into Canada to avoid Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s crack­down on un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

But the 19-year-old na­tive of Afghanistan needed a friend to help guide him. He found that friend in a 66-year-old for­mer French teacher, one of a num­ber of peo­ple here in the Adiron­dack re­gion who be­lieve it’s their duty to com­fort and sup­port those flee­ing Trump’s vi­sion for Amer­ica.

As Ma­lik dragged his suit­case

The Statue of Lib­erty was said to be “not worth it.” Eng­land’s Stone­henge was termed “un­der­whelm­ing.” The Taj Ma­hal’s long lines drew crit­i­cism. Ni­a­gara Falls was called “a tiny Las Vegas in Canada.” to­ward the Cana­dian bor­der, Janet McFetridge gave him two bags of potato chips, a knit hat and — what she con­sid­ers her most im­por­tant gift —a hug. Then she yelled across the thicket of cat­tails and flow­er­ing grasses that sep­a­rated them from Que­bec.

“Hello!” she called, alert­ing a Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice of­fi­cer that Ma­lik was about to il­le­gally cross the bor­der to claim asy­lum. “We got some­one here.”

McFetridge is part of a loosely as­sem­bled net­work of pro­gres­sive ac­tivists, faith lead­ers and taxi driv­ers who have mo­bi­lized to help un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants cross the north­ern bor­der. To some, they’re self­less do-good­ers ush­er­ing peo­ple to bet­ter lives. To oth­ers, they’re per­pet­u­at­ing a prob­lem that has de­bil­i­tated Canada’s im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.

For cen­turies, res­i­dents note, towns in the Cham­plain Val­ley have been a path to se­cu­rity, serv­ing as an es­cape route for peo­ple flee­ing slav­ery, the Viet­nam War draft and Cen­tral Amer­i­can wars. Now, when it comes to im­mi­gra­tion, this GOP-friendly part of New York has be­come a hub of the re­sis­tance.

“We view this as our Un­der­ground Rail­road,” said Ca­role Slatkin, an ad­vo­cate who has helped im­mi­grants trav­el­ing through Es­sex, New York, a town that was part of a ma­jor route for en­slaved peo­ple. “While no one is be­ing flogged, and no one is be­ing sold, there is this sort of mod­ern-day equiv­a­lent of feel­ing like peo­ple are in danger.”

Ad­vo­cates say they try not to give di­rect ad­vice to the im­mi­grants, in­stead help­ing them find a place to rest or sup­plies to ease their jour­ney. But the im­age of U.S. cit­i­zens sup­port­ing im­mi­grants who make the trip is con­tro­ver­sial in Canada, threat­en­ing long-stand­ing, cross-bor­der ca­ma­raderie.

“To me, it’s just be­ing abu­sive,” said Paul Viau, mayor of the town­ship of Hem­ming­ford, a Cana­dian farm­ing com­mu­nity along the bor­der. “There are peo­ple who sym­pa­thize with [the im­mi­grants] and peo­ple who have a harder time with it. But no one ap­pre­ci­ates that some­one would pack them up and bring them to the bor­der at an il­le­gal cross­ing.”

Last year, as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion be­gan en­act­ing stricter poli­cies against un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, Canada pro­cessed more than 50,000 asy­lum claims. That is more than dou­ble the claims made in 2016, ac­cord­ing to Cana­dian govern­ment sta­tis­tics.

Many of those im­mi­grants have been cross­ing at unau­tho­rized lo­ca­tions, such as here on Rox­ham Road.

Al­though the flow of asy­lum seek­ers into many Cana­dian provinces has slowed this year, there has been no letup into Que­bec. From Jan­uary through June, the Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice ap­pre­hended 10,261 peo­ple cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally there. Last year, the po­lice ap­pre­hended 18,836 peo­ple.

The ar­rivals have sparked a back­lash from seg­ments of Canada’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. In late June, Toronto Mayor John Tory warned that the in­flux had over­whelmed that city’s abil­ity to care for them.

“We have a prob­lem, and we need help,” Tory told Cana­dian re­porters in a plea for more emer­gency hous­ing.

In Que­bec, the leader of its na­tion­al­ist party, JeanFrançois Lisée, has sug­gested con­struct­ing a wall along the south­ern bor­der of the province.

Rox­ham Road, a nar­row paved road lined by horse farms and marshes, has served as a path re­cently for Pales­tini­ans, Colom­bians, Ghana­ians, Nige­ri­ans, Haitians, Zim­bab­weans and Pak­ista­nis, among oth­ers.

Af­ter one taxi pulled up here, Fiy­ori Mes­fin strug­gled to carry a car seat, stroller and two back­packs Janet McFetridge ex­plains to a fam­ily of Pales­tinian asy­lum seek­ers what will hap­pen when they try to cross the bor­der into Canada.

as she crossed the bor­der with her two chil­dren, ages 1 and 3.

Mes­fin, 32, is a sin­gle mother from Eritrea who had been liv­ing for the past four years in Las Vegas. Her chil­dren are U.S. cit­i­zens.

Af­ter she was re­cently de­nied asy­lum in the United States, Mes­fin be­gan to fear she could be de­ported or even sep­a­rated from her chil­dren. So she flew to John F. Kennedy Air­port in New York and then boarded a Grey­hound bus for Platts­burgh, New York.

“So now I am here just hop­ing it gets bet­ter,” Mes­fin said as she pushed the stroller, while try­ing to man­age her tod­dler, to­ward Canada.

Sa­man Mo­darage also had taken the bus.

Mo­darage is a Sri Lankan na­tive who fled his coun­try in 2005 dur­ing a civil war. He had set­tled in sub­ur­ban Wash­ing­ton and worked at a liquor store in Maryland.

But Mo­darage, 51, de­cided to try to flee Maryland for Canada af­ter he heard that U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment was raid­ing and au­dit­ing Maryland con­ve­nience stores search­ing for un­doc­u­mented em­ploy­ees.

In a re­cent state­ment, ICE noted that it has opened nearly 6,100 work­site in­ves­ti­ga­tions and made more than 1,500 ar­rests from Oc­to­ber through July — more than five times the num­ber of ar­rests made in the pre­vi­ous fis­cal year.

“Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has pushed me here,” said Mo­darage, who ar­rived in Platts­burgh with two sets of cloth­ing and $300. “All im­mi­grants are un­der threat . . . . If I got de­ported, it would kill me.”

The flow of peo­ple il­le­gally cross­ing into Canada from the United States has con­tin­ued de­spite an agree­ment in 2002 be­tween the coun­tries that is de­signed to man­age refugee move­ments.

The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Coun­try Agree­ment re­quires mi­grants to make an asy­lum claim in the first safe coun­try they reach, un­less they are mi­nors or have fam­ily ties at their next des­ti­na­tion. The agree­ment means many of those who try to cross from the United States into Canada at an bor­der sta­tion are turned away.

But a loop­hole per­mits asy­lum claims to be made by in­di­vid­u­als who en­ter Canada covertly, such as here on Rox­ham Road, about five miles west of the in­ter­state. Cross­ing il­le­gally at out-of-the-way sites has be­come the pre­ferred method for un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants in the United States as well as those in the coun­try legally who see their chance of get­ting asy­lum or per­ma­nent res­i­dency dim­ming.

Many take a bus from New York City to Platts­burgh, where wait­ing taxis trans­port them about 30 miles to the end of Rox­ham Road, a 100-yard dirt path into Canada.

Fed­eral of­fi­cers sta­tioned on the other side of the bor­der im­me­di­ately ar­rest those who cross il­le­gally. But if the crossers have proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, no crim­i­nal his­tory and are not other­wise con­sid­ered a se­cu­rity threat, most are re­leased within 72 hours, said Syl­vain Thibault, a co­or­di­na­tor at Project Refugee, a Mon­treal-based hu­man­i­tar­ian group.

They then stay in a

shel­ter, or with fam­ily or friends, while they await their hear­ing. They are also el­i­gi­ble for pub­lic as­sis­tance, health care and an op­por­tu­nity to ap­ply for a Cana­dian work per­mit.

Cana­dian law dic­tates asy­lum hear­ings should be held within 60 days.

But Paul Clarke, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ac­tion Refugees Mon­treal, an ad­vo­cacy group, said the govern­ment is so over­whelmed, it’s now tak­ing up to two years for cases to be heard.

Last year, Cana­dian courts granted asy­lum in about 60 per­cent of cases, Clarke said. Cana­dian au­thor­i­ties have warned that far fewer of the most re­cent ar­rivals are ex­pected to qual­ify.

■■■

McFetridge, the teacher turned ac­tivist, has lived in Cham­plain about five miles from the bor­der for three decades. But she never paid much at­ten­tion to it un­til af­ter Trump’s elec­tion, when she was look­ing for ways to con­vert her agony over his win into mean­ing­ful ac­tion.

In March 2017, when she be­gan hear­ing about an in­flux of im­mi­grants into Canada, she de­cided to drive up to Rox­ham Road. The sight of peo­ple drag­ging lug­gage - and chil­dren - down “an iso­lated, lonely, coun­try road” shook her.

“I was just hor­ri­fied that peo­ple were leav­ing the United States, where we have this idea of be­ing a bea­con of hope, for an­other coun­try,” she re­called. “At that point, I said, we can do some­thing here, and I can at least give them a kind word, and rec­og­nize them as peo­ple by say­ing, ‘I am sorry you feel you have to do this.’ ”

McFetridge be­gan show­ing up al­most daily.

Last win­ter, af­ter real­iz­ing many asy­lum seek­ers were ar­riv­ing with­out warm clothes, she be­gan hand­ing out coats and gloves.

As the weather warmed, she tran­si­tioned her ef­forts to hand­ing out snacks and toys to the chil­dren. McFetridge said she tries to avoid giv­ing di­rect ad­vice or ma­te­rial sup­port to the refugees to avoid con­flict with Cana­dian im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties. But, she said, it’s im­por­tant for her to be there so peo­ple know they are not alone and can cross with a sense of safety.

“I can tell them they are not go­ing to be shot,” she said. “They’ve asked me: ‘Do I have to run? Are the po­lice go­ing to shoot me?’ ”

McFetridge, who said she en­coun­ters dozens of asy­lum seek­ers on some days, keeps a log of those she en­coun­ters.

“. . . Woman ar­rived by plane. 25 years in the US. Leav­ing son be­hind, de­gree in fi­nance . . . Fa­ther stayed in taxi, sob­bing as fam­ily left . . . Young adult — said she was bi­sex­ual & would be killed if re­turned to home coun­try . . .”

Al­though McFetridge is the most vis­i­ble ad­vo­cate, a broad ar­ray of com­mu­nity and faith or­ga­ni­za­tions have also mo­bi­lized through­out the Cham­plain Val­ley to as­sist peo­ple who pass through.

One or­ga­ni­za­tion that was formed to sup­port refugees, Platts­burgh Cares, prints in­for­ma­tional pam­phlets about how to safely reach Rox­ham Road. Amid com­plaints from Cana­dian of­fi­cials, the

group stopped dis­tribut­ing the pam­phlets this spring. It now re­lies on “word of mouth” to get in­for­ma­tion out, said Slatkin, 73, the woman in Es­sex.

As they con­tinue their ef­forts, the ad­vo­cates draw com­par­isons to the stealth net­work of abo­li­tion­ists used to help guide peo­ple who es­caped to Canada in the 19th cen­tury.

Of the es­ti­mated

100,000 en­slaved peo­ple who fled the Amer­i­can South be­tween 1810 and

1850, about 40,000 made it to Canada af­ter be­ing hid­den in houses and churches along the way, said Don Pap­son, pres­i­dent of the North Coun­try Un­der­ground Rail­road Mu­seum in Kee­seville, New York.

One of the ma­jor routes there ran through Cham­plain, about two blocks from McFetridge’s house, he noted. Today, be­fore asy­lum seek­ers ar­rive on Rox­ham Road, they must travel down North Star Road, be­lieved to be named af­ter the star that peo­ple who es­caped slav­ery used to guide them to­ward free­dom.

Martha Swan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of John Brown Lives, a hu­man­i­tar­ian group based in West­port, New York, and named af­ter the 19th-cen­tury abo­li­tion­ist, said the re­gion’s “in­spir­ing his­tory” is what is caus­ing more peo­ple to “sum­mon the courage” to sup­port refugees. She said in­ter­est in help­ing the refugees has grown con­sid­er­ably this sum­mer be­cause of out­rage over Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy of sep­a­rat­ing de­tained un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants from their chil­dren at the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der.

“You don’t have to do any­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary, nec­es­sar­ily, but you do have to bear wit­ness and help where you can,” said Swann, who re­cently helped a Nige­rian woman make the trip from Los An­ge­les to the north­ern bor­der.

At the First Pres­by­te­rian Church in Platts­burgh, the con­gre­ga­tion de­cided to con­vert a Sun­day school room into a tem­po­rary shel­ter for use by asy­lum seek­ers who may be­come stranded.

Stu­art Voss, chair­man of the church’s refugee com­mit­tee, said the church is re­viv­ing a role it played in the late 1980s when thou­sands of mi­grants from Cen­tral Amer­ica trav­eled through up­state New York to reach Canada.

But Voss, 75, said church mem­bers now be­lieve they must be far more dis­creet in their ef­forts than they were 30 years ago.

“We de­cided it wasn’t the same sit­u­a­tion as in

1986 to 1987 be­cause there was no ICE back then, and it was just Bor­der Pa­trol,” said Voss, re­fer­ring to the Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agency, which was cre­ated in 2003 in wake of 9/11. “Cus­toms used to tell us, ‘OK, as long as they are stay­ing with you, you can help them out.’ ”

In a state­ment, the Cana­dian po­lice de­clined to com­ment on Amer­i­cans’ role in help­ing the refugees but said it added re­sources to the bor­der and is con­fi­dent it can meet the se­cu­rity and hu­man­i­tar­ian chal­lenge.

In a sep­a­rate state­ment, the U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion agency said it is “work­ing to iden­tify trends and pat­terns” of cross-bor­der move­ment into Canada.

AN­DRE MALERBA FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

RICHARD DREW/AP

GE­OFF CADDICK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

DON EMMERT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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