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The Other Border

Before and after crossing, seeking refuge in Canada is a long journey

ST. CATHARINES, Ont. – She was shuddering, crying and thinking about her baby boy as we sat in safety inside an office in a Southern Ontario refugee home. She was thinking about one year ago, when she clutched him tight as she fled from America into the hands of Canadian police officers. They arrested her, but they helped her, too.

She told the officers and Canadian immigration officials, who met with her shortly after her arrest, that she is from Colombia. She told them she faced persecution there, a persecution so dark and unsettling that still, two countries later, she only cried and shivered harder when I asked if she wanted to talk about it. She told them, too, that she felt unsafe in the United States, where she had come five years earlier to set up a new life. “It was a cage of gold,” she told me through an interpreter.

This woman and her son were two of the more than 50,000 people who have crossed into Quebec from the United States over the last three years, knowing they would be apprehended and then making a claim of political asylum. She crossed Nov. 9, 2018, at Roxham Road in Champlain, where northeastern New York meets Quebec. Her husband followed three weeks later, at the same spot, and they are now reunited, living in St. Catharines and pursuing permanent legal status in Canada.

Thousands of refugees in Canada have a similar story. Roxham – the short, rural farm road – has become the most frequent spot for this to happen. It bisects the Canadian border, ending with a sign that warns people not to cross, but without a fence or wall to keep them from doing it. Anyone who cares to cross into Canada there can do it by walking across a short gravel ditch and passing a small white obelisk that marks the border.

It’s illegal to do this, and at Roxham, arrest is guaranteed. But for most looking to claim political asylum in Canada, that’s the idea. If you do it the legal way – at a port of entry – Canadian immigration officials can turn you around and send you back to the United States. But crossing at Roxham, or anywhere else besides a port of entry, exploits a legal loophole that allows refugee claims to be made from within the country.

When you watch it happen at Roxham, it’s largely safe and orderly: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have set up a building on the Quebec side of Roxham. When people cross over, they are generally greeted kindly by the RCMP officers, who bring them into the building to process their arrest and then transport them to a nearby port of entry, where immigration officials hear the asylum claim.

This isn’t to say the process is without stress. People coming to Roxham have uniformly traveled far. To get to Champlain, they most often take a train or bus from Manhattan to Plattsburgh, or sometimes fly in from New York or Washington, D.C. A so-called “border taxi,” which has become a healthy business for cab drivers in Plattsburgh, takes them on a 30-minute ride to the end of Roxham. When they step out of the car, they are at the end of a long journey that may have begun in Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or dozens of other faraway countries. They often appear frazzled or unnerved. On one visit, an elderly man from Nigeria with a hobbled gait and a small pink suitcase with all his belongings started crying when he saw the Canadian officers. “Don’t let them shoot me,” he cried.

St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police Patrolman Barnes prepares lines from the bow of a Tribal Police watercraft on patrol in the Grasse River on the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

That dynamic makes it difficult to know the story of how and why people came to Roxham. To do that, you need to go into Canada and find them.

Craig Damian Smith, a University of Toronto researcher, has led a study of the situation of Roxham Road. He conducted or oversaw interviews with 290 asylum claimants who have crossed there. About 60% of the interviewees had transited from their home countries through the United States, and were in America for an average of five days. The remaining 40% had lived in America longer – for an average of six years – and then decided to leave, often because they feared raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“For each of the people, there was an individual catalyst,” Smith said. “Things were getting worse, they knew about Roxham Road, but they were waiting it out, and then something terrible happens and they (say), ‘OK, we’re going.’ ”

That resonated in conversations I had with people at a pair of refugee assistance centers in Southern Ontario: Casa el Norte in Fort Erie, and Chez Marie in St. Catharines. The Buffalo News is not using the names of the people interviewed, who came from Colombia and El Salavador and, to a person, feared persecution for family members in their home countries if their names were recognized.

Several members of a family who owned a packaging business Columbia said a gang was extorting their father, who ran the company, by demanding monthly payments under threat. This family, which includes a mother and father, two adult children, their spouses, and multiple grandchildren, all came to the United States. They lived in New Jersey for nearly three years, scraped for jobs and claim at one point that they were cheated out of money by an unscrupulous immigration lawyer.

The adult son researched Roxham, and crossed successfully with his family. He was connected by a friend with the refugee home in St. Catharines, where he began building an immigration case. As part of that case, most of the rest of the family was able to cross legally at the Peace Bridge. Now they are living in Southern Ontario, where their children attend school. They are hoping their father, who was the target of the threat that began their journey northward, will soon join them from New Jersey.

A different man said his wife worked for a bank in Colombia, where she discovered illegal activity happening. The people behind it threatened her life. “They held a gun to her head,” he said in an interview. They decided to leave Colombia with their young child and flew to Miami, where they entered the United States on visitor visas. They ended up in Columbus, Ohio, where their second child was born, but their visas expired and they couldn’t confidently secure legal immigration status in the States.

They decided to head toward Canada. After some research, they found the safest place to do that was northeastern New York, where the border is mostly land. The family headed there, but was stopped near a Walmart, the man said, by agents in green uniforms – presumably U.S. Border Patrol. The man suspects one of the locals saw a Hispanic family with Ohio plates and, believing they might be illegal, called them in. He’s likely correct: Many locals in northeastern New York say they do that.

Many questions later, the federal agents gave the family a court appearance date, but let them go without being detained. Spooked, the man and his wife found a dead-end road that stopped at the end of New York. They grabbed whatever belongings they could, and walked across, leaving their car behind forever. This was in 2016, before the crackdown on immigration and before the heavy traffic at Roxham Road. The family walked for a half-hour in the rain until Canadian police stopped them. The first question from the police was: “Are you hungry?”

The process for gaining legal status in Canada can take two or three years, and not everyone who crosses at Roxham achieves it. One Canadian official interviewed for this series estimates only about half of the Roxham crossers are truly refugees. For those who make it into the system, life in Canada is supportive in many ways: They have access to health care and housing assistance, and to schools for their children.

It’s better, but not easy. Sister Judy Carroll, a mental health counselor at Casa El Norte, said it’s common for refugees to deal with deep problems – sometimes alcoholism, and many times, spousal issues – during their transition and even long afterward.

“They have had to leave without warning, often, and without wanting to,” she said, adding that many people are leaving their careers, and thus, their identities behind. She’s working now with a doctor from El Salvador who was the head surgeon at the largest hospital in his country. In Canada, without knowing much English and not possessing a medical license, he’s hoping to work as a support medic on ambulances.

“They realize this is going to be their life,” Carroll said. “You were a pilot in your own country. Well now, if you can’t learn English, you’re going to be cleaning offices.”

What pushes people through, Carroll added, is exactly what the woman who crossed Roxham with her baby still clings to even today: Hope for a better life for her child.

“It’s their children that help them to accept their losses, really,” Carroll said. “I think what really keeps them (going) is, ‘I’ve lived my life. I’m here for my children.’ ”

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