At a small, unofficial border crossing at Roxham Road separating Quebec and New York state in mid-March, a group of migrants encounters an RCMP officer who delivers a final warning.
“It’s illegal to cross the border here,” the agent says, staying on the Canadian side of the crossing. “If you do so, you are going to be arrested for illegal entry into Canada.”
The migrants — including adults and children, all of them holding suitcases and carrying backpacks — stay frozen on the American side. They are either considering the ramifications of being arrested or do not understand English.
They have just completed the final leg of an arduous journey with hopes of making it into Canada, with most making the last stint by taxi from Plattsburgh, N.Y., about half an hour south of the Canada-U.S. border. Now, steps from potentially realizing their dream, they appear unsure what to do next.
“It’s your choice,” the officer tells the migrants.
After a few moments, the migrants cross, single-file, and line up in front of the officer on the Canadian side, who announces they are under arrest. They are processed under a small white tent and then taken inside a building, finally safe from the late-winter cold.
The arrest is just temporary, however. Soon, they will meet with an immigration official and apply for asylum — something they can’t do at an official border crossing.
This scene plays out multiple times a day at Roxham Road, which has become a microcosm for the ever-growing migration crisis facing North America as well as a political lightning rod in Quebec and Ottawa.
The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) requires that asylum seekers make a refugee claim in the first “safe” country they reach. In practice, it means that border officials in Canada turn back would-be asylum seekers who show up at official checkpoints from the U.S. But they are not required to turn back asylum seekers who cross irregularly at places such as Roxham Road.
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Last year, nearly 40,000 migrants entered Canada through Roxham Road, according to federal data. In December alone, the crossing saw 4,689 migrants enter— more than all would-be refugees who arrived in Canada in 2021.
Amid calls from Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre for the federal government to close Roxham Road entirely — and ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first official visit to Canada — reports emerged Thursday that a deal was being negotiated to address the so-called loophole in the STCA that incentivizes irregular crossings.
The issue is expected to be discussed between Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during their meetings in Ottawa on Friday. But experts have urged the two leaders to consider the broader picture of hemispheric migration impacting the Western world, rather than a single contentious crossing.
“What you need, in my view, are structured ways of managing flows of people coming in and making informal claims,” said Pearl Eliadis, an associate professor at McGill University who studies immigration and human rights.
“(There should be) a broad bilateral set of agreements that take into account really the continental reality, which is a number of unstable countries in the southern hemisphere, flows of migrants being pushed north.”
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If Roxham Road is closed or the STCA is amended to address the irregular crossing loophole, it could impact what’s become a local cottage industry of taxi drivers in Plattsburgh who take migrants to the border.
Last month, reports said officials from New York City were providing free bus tickets to migrants heading north to claim asylum in Canada. New York City Mayor Eric Adams told Fox 5 his administration helps in the “re-ticketing process” for people who arrive in the city but want to go elsewhere.
The move was in response to an influx of migrants flown to New York City by officials in southern states like Texas and Florida.
Motorcycle accident toronto today did not receive a response from Adam’s office to a request for more clarity on the help being provided.
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After getting off the bus in Plattsburgh, the migrants are met by taxi drivers offering to take them to the border.
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One of those drivers, Tom, who did not give his last name, told Motorcycle accident toronto today he charges US$70 for individuals and US$90 for families.
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“If they don’t have that kind of money I try to figure something out for them,” he said. “I can take them for free, as long as someone in the car can pay it.”
Tom said he’s encountered passengers from all over the world, including countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central and South America. Some have fled Russia and its partial mobilization of soldiers in its war on Ukraine, he said.
Most don’t speak English or only know very basic words and phrases.
“The refugees don’t know they’re coming to Plattsburgh, they think they’re coming right into Canada,” he said. “So when they step off the bus, a lot of them say, ‘Canada, Canada.’
“They’re nervous, they’re scared. I try to explain to them that they’re safe.”
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Many migrants have already suffered incredibly long journeys before ending up in Plattsburgh.
One young man, who did not give his name and did not speak English, indicated to Motorcycle accident toronto today he had travelled from Afghanistan through Chile, Ecuador and other South American countries before arriving in Mexico, then the U.S.
Another man, William, said in French that he was a taxi driver in Haiti before he fled the country, which has been plagued by deadly gang violence and supply shortages. He first travelled to Brazil where he was able to get a visa, then to the U.S.-Mexico border and a bus from Texas to New York City.
Tom said he sympathizes with the plight his passengers have faced and wishes lawmakers shared it. So too do advocates who find themselves helping migrants after they make it into Canada.
“They’re not jumping the queue. They’re using the only means available to them to try and find safety,” said Frances Ravensbergen, a resident of Hemmingford, Que., close to the Roxham Road crossing who helped create the volunteer group Bridges Not Borders.
“They want a roof over their heads. They want their kids to be educated. They want to be able to put food on their table. They want to work. It’s like, why wouldn’t we be more open to that?”
Tom is more blunt: “The stories (migrants) tell me — the ones who can tell me — and knowing what they went through? Some of these Americans ought to try that. See if they can survive.”
—with files from Global’s Katherine Aylesworth and The Canadian Press