CHAMPLAIN – The minivan turned onto a short country road, chugging past a farm, a group of horses in a field, a few trailer homes, and a house decorated with an array of windmills and flags. The vehicle was decorated with white-block letters that made it clear where the driver would take the occupants: “BORDERLINE TAXI” on the door, “REFUGEE BORDER” on the window.
The driver pulled up past the final house and put the vehicle in park. This was the end of the road, and the end of the country. Canada was just a few steps away, on the other side of a ditch and a smattering of concrete barriers that didn’t form a wall, or even a fence. They would stop a car from passing through, but not a person, and not a family. There was a sign, written in both French and English, that read:
It is illegal to cross the border here or any place other than a Port of Entry.
You will be detained and arrested if you cross here.
A tall, broad-shouldered man emerged from the passenger seat of the minivan. The back doors open and his family stepped out: his wife, their little boy, another son who looked to be about 12, and three teenage daughters. Their suitcases were packed to bursting, the weight of the contents inside – likely everything they could bring to start what they hope is a new life – tipping them onto the dirt. They lugged their luggage to the edge of the ditch, where a Canadian police officer stopped them.
“You’re all together? One family?” he asked.
“Yes,” the man said.
“One family?” the officer repeated, seeming to make sure the man understood his English.
“One family,” the father affirmed.
“Before you make a decision, I have to explain something, OK?”
“OK,” the man said. He seemed to expect this conversation.
“We’re police officers. We’re not immigration, OK?” the officer said. His voice was kind. He was clasping and unclasping his hands as he spoke. “If you choose to enter this way, it’s illegal and you’re going to be arrested. The legal way to enter Canada is through a port of entry, and there’s one about 5 kilometers away from here.”
He motioned west, where the busy Champlain-St. Bernard de Lacolle Border Crossing serves as a corridor between Montreal and New York City.
The officer continued: “If you do choose to enter this way, make sure you bring everything with you, because you cannot cross back and pick up stuff, OK? Don’t forget anything.”
The officer took a step backward. “It’s your choice.”
The choice had already been made – by this man and his family, and by thousands of others.
Since President Trump took office in 2017, the number of asylum claimants entering Canada annually has more than doubled from years prior. In 2015, the Canadian government received 16,055 people claiming asylum. The next year, which includes the November 2016 election of Trump, the number jumped to 23,870 people. Shortly after Trump took office in January 2017, he started taking action to toughen America's policies on refugees and immigration. At the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength."
In 2017, the number of asylum claims across Canada climbed to 50,390. It rose to 55,040 in 2018, and this year is on pace to exceed 60,000.
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The 505-mile boundary between Quebec and the United States includes parts of the border in New York and Maine, and all of it in Vermont and New Hampshire. Much of it is forested and far removed from major cities. Roxham Road, however, is enticingly open. It's a 30-minute cab ride from Plattsburgh and less than an hour's drive from Montreal. That has made Roxham the most porous northbound spot on the border. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police erected a large white building where officers are stationed and where people who cross illegally can be processed.
Since 2017, an average of 1,492 people a month – or 49 a day – have crossed illegally into Quebec and claimed asylum after being arrested by the RCMP, the majority of whom likely crossed at Roxham. The flow is clearly heavier northward. On the American side of the Quebec border, the U.S. Border Patrol arrested an average of 53 people per month with illegal status in 2017 and 2018. It includes not only people who slipped southward into the United States from Quebec, but also those who may have intended to head north into Canada from, say, a bus station but were caught with illegal paperwork during a routine citizenship check.
The reason so many people are headed to Canada illegally – crossing between a port of entry rather than at one – is a loophole in the Safe Third Agreement, a 2004 pact between the United States and Canada.
Safe Third requires that people seeking political asylum in either the United States or Canada must ask for it in the country where they arrived first. In the case of people crossing at Roxham Road, that is the United States. If those people were to try to seek asylum at a port of entry, as the officer is required to suggest, Canada Border Services Agency officials would likely send them back to the United States under the provisions of Safe Third. That is an unattractive option for the asylum-seekers. If they were in the United States illegally, having to show paperwork at an American port of entry could result in detainment.
But if those people seeking a new life in Canada slip into the country outside a port of entry, they cannot be sent back. They are arrested, and then claim political asylum, which starts a process they hope will result in gaining permanent legal status in Canada.
“That particular way that people get in is clearly a very odd little loophole in the Third Country agreement,” said Phyllis Yaffe, the consul general of Canada in New York. She acknowledged that while the Canadian government will treat people kindly when they cross illegally, they don't encourage it.
“We try to educate as many people as possible that it is not the right way to cross the border and we discourage it, but if they do it, we are going to be humane about it,” Yaffe said. “But we are going to make them go through a process.”
That legal process, she added, does not always result in people being allowed to stay in Canada. While Trudeau has emphasized that Canada welcomes people facing danger and persecution in their home countries, there is a distinction between refugees and immigrants.
“About half of the people who go through the process are allowed to stay because they are truly refugees, and half are not,” said Yaffe, who noted the Canadian government would like to change the agreement, but hasn't found traction with their American counterparts.
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Officers from U.S. Customs and Border protection brought me and Buffalo News Chief Photographer Derek Gee to Roxham Road during the reporting of this series, "The Other Border." It didn't take long for a cab to pull up, but the first person we saw at the end of the road was Janet McFetridge, a retired French teacher and now the mayor of the Village of Champlain.
McFetridge stations herself on the American side of the border nearly every afternoon. She sits in her minivan at the end of Roxham with a trunk full of snacks and plush animals, and in colder months, scarves, hats and gloves that have been donated by people from around the country. McFetridge comes here six days a week to greet people and encourage them as they walk over. She started two-and-a-half years ago.
“I just read about the situation and I thought, ‘Maybe I should see if there’s something I can do here,' ” McFetridge said.
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “And as soon as I saw people crossing, I was like, ‘My gosh.’ It was still chilly out, so that’s when I thought, ‘I can at least give them a hat.’ It started really small like that, and then I just had to be here.”
The people who cross at Roxham and other spots into Quebec come from around the world, and in particular from Central America, Africa and the Middle East. Many are living in the United States but fear deportation. Others fly to the United States from their home country, enter on a visitors visa, then travel to Plattsburgh, where so-called border taxis wait at the airport and bus and train stations. These taxis – which are far more plentiful than you would typically see in a city the size of Plattsburgh – may charge as much as $92 per family for the half-hour ride to the end of Roxham Road.
“What people often do is sell everything they have in order to pay for the journey,” said Wendy Ayotte, a founder of the Quebec-based group Bridges Not Borders, which provides support for asylees.
Bridges Not Borders has instructions on its website for asylum seekers, as does Plattsburgh Cares, a group that McFetridge helped form. There also are YouTube videos showing the crossings, often with McFetridge visible. A man from Africa recently told her, excitedly, “You’re here!” He pointed out that she’s well-known in his country – without saying which one – as the woman at the end of Roxham Road. “It got to be sort of expected,” McFetridge said. “A lot of the YouTube videos have me handing out things, so now they’re like, ‘There’s that lady who gives us hats.’ ”
It was still warm on the day we visited, so the gift of choice for this family was bags of chips and other snacks. They clutched them between their fingertips as they dragged their suitcases across the asphalt and up to a pair of blue plastic barrels. One of the teenage girls dropped her luggage near my feet, and I crouched down to lift it up for her. It easily weighed 70 pounds, and it contained everything she would have to start her new life in Canada, if they crossed.
Her father, who was holding her toddler brother, murmured a few words to his family, then looked back at the officer. “Well, we came from Gaza,” he said. “We are Palestinian.”
He started tripping over his words, before he finally got out: “I need to ask for asylum.”
This has become a familiar scene at the end of Roxham Road. Every time, the asylum-seekers are told the same thing by Canadian police: Do not cross here. It is illegal. If you do cross, you will be arrested.
And then comes the choice.
“We need your help,” the Palestinian man said to the officer.
But you have to be in Canada for that to happen, and at this point, the family was still on the U.S. side. The Canadian officer couldn’t come get them – it would be illegal for him to cross, too – so they had to come to him.
“It’s your choice,” the officer said.
The man understood. With his son cradled in his left arm and a suitcase in his right hand, he took the final steps toward Canada. His family followed.
Coming Monday, Dec. 1: We talk to refugees building a new life in Canada about their journey after Roxham Road.