Hundreds Of Asylum-Seekers Continue To Stream Into Quebec

Aug 16, 2017
Originally published on August 16, 2017 5:06 pm

The number of asylum-seekers fleeing the U.S. into Canada is surging this summer, with nearly 800 people illegally walking into Quebec in June alone.

One of the most popular illegal border crossing areas is just west of Lake Champlain, along the rural Roxham Road just outside Champlain, New York.  This route began to see an uptick in traffic around the time of the presidential elections, spurred by fear of the Trump administration's attitude toward refugees. That flow of asylum-seekers has increased fairly steadily in recent months.

To handle the influx, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has set up a huge tent complete with a generator, restrooms and chairs and tables to process all the incoming asylum-seekers.

On a recent warm August afternoon, the U.S. side of Roxham Road is fairly deserted. The pavement is littered with evidence of the high volume of traffic; there are discarded baggage claim tickets and even an old suit left behind.

A taxi pulls up and a young man with only a small backpack gets out and begins walking toward Canada.

He doesn't share his name, but he says he's from Yemen. He flew to New York City about a week ago, but he didn't feel safe trying to seek refugee status in the U.S.

"It's not freedom, it's not safety in the United States. I came here [to the border], and I'm going to help my family because, my family live in Abu Dhabi, they don't have work, they don't have money."

He says he worked hard to raise enough money to travel to the U.S. on a tourist visa. Before leaving his home, he researched how to cross into Canada. 

"I'm looking on the internet... how to go this way, and ask some people on the internet, and they show me everything," the man says. 

Then, a bit nervously, he turns to cross the well-trodden dirt pathway over the border.

The Canadian police who are permanently stationed on their side of this dead end road walk over when they see him approach:

"Sir, just stop right there," a male officer says, holding his hand up at chest height. "You're under arrest if you cross the border."

The young man from Yemen keeps repeating, "I have no choice," and continues to walk toward the officer until he is on Canadian soil. Once he has crossed, the police instruct him to remove his backpack and they pat him down for weapons.  

The authorities will conduct a criminal background check and review his identification documents. If he's determined to not be a threat to the public, they'll help him fill out paperwork to apply for asylum right there in the tent in the woods.  

Because of a U.S.-Canada agreement, any person who is already in the U.S. cannot request asylum at a border checkpoint. That's why so many are choosing to cross illegally between checkpoints, such as right here at Roxham Road.

The top five countries of origin among people who are fleeing the U.S. are (in order): Haiti, Sudan, Turkey, Eritrea, and the United States.

That's not a typo. Some of the asylum seekers are U.S. citizens.

Canadian border officials say they are mostly children who are born to foreign nationals while living in the U.S. Canadian authorities say they don't refuse children who are U.S. citizens, because their priority is to keep families together.

Haitians make up the biggest percentage of those leaving the U.S.;  that's in part because temporary protected status for hundreds of Haitians living in the U.S. expires in January.  However there's no guarantee Haitian asylum-seekers will be able to stay in Canada either. The country recently lifted it's temporary protections policy.

The next cab that pulls up has three people from Haiti. There are two men and one woman, each dragging a suitcase on wheels. 

One of the men speaks some English. He says he has been living in San Diego, Calif., for the past year and four months. But he says he's really scared that he might be sent back to Haiti:

"Big problem for me go back in Haiti, because, me I don't go back Haiti," he explains. When asked if it would be dangerous for him to return, he nods emphatically: "Yeah it would be dangerous."

Then, after a brief exchange in French with the Canadian police, he and his two travel companions wheel their suitcases across the dirt path and into Canada.

It's unclear just how many of the thousands who have entered Canada this year will be granted refugee status. The review board that decides these cases is backlogged—it's at least four to five months  behind.

Yet in Canada, while people are awaiting their hearing, they can get work permits, access to health care and French classes.  For many it's worth the risk.

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