- Over the last two years, America’s immigration debate has largely revolved around the country’s southern border – but one tiny road leading from the US to Canada has become a small-scale immigration controversy of its own.
- Migrants from around the world have been coming to a rural village in upstate New York for a chance to cross the border into Canada and seek asylum.
- Like the Central American caravans that have sparked a roiling debate over immigration in the US, these migrants heading to Canada also seek safety, peace, and better lives.
- The difference is that once they enter the US, they don’t want to stay. They are fleeing the US for Canada.
CHAMPLAIN, NY – Blaise Kidasharira stepped out of a taxi cab onto a road marked “DEAD END.”
It was barely dawn, the air was freezing, and he was carrying two small bags and one keychain. Dangling from the rings was a tiny photograph of his two young daughters along with his wife, who died nearly a year ago.
Pausing by the side of the road to talk, Kidasharira described how a bullet had pierced his wife’s liver. It had been fired by a member of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling government party in his home country of Burundi. She died from a blood infection weeks later.
Now, after taking a flight to the United States using a temporary visa, a bus through upstate New York, a cab ride to the tiny village of Champlain, and a short walk to the end of Roxham Road, Kidasharira had one ditch to cross before he reached his destination.
“What I want: asylum from Canada,” he told INSIDER, as he stood just feet away from the border between New York state and the Canadian province of Quebec.
“What I want is just to be safe here, and maybe in a couple months or years to see again my daughters with a safe life. There is insecurity in my country.”
A 34-year-old former Doctors Without Borders physician and member of the Tutsi ethnic minority, Kidasharira said the youth militia would hunt him down and that he stood no chance in Burundi.
The only option was Canada – and the well-trodden dirt path leading into it.
“Canada is a beautiful country, it’s a peaceful country,” Kidasharira said as he walked toward the border, ignoring multiple signs telling him to stop in both English and French, warning that the ditch was illegal to cross.
As he drew closer, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers emerged from a small shelter on the Quebec side of the border. They knew what Kidasharira was about to do, and they were ready to arrest him.
“I have no fear,” Kidasharira said. “If you saw those guys, the youth, I told you …” he trailed off.
Then he took his first steps into Canada.
Migrants around the world have discovered a backroad passage to Canada
Over the last two years, America’s immigration debate has largely revolved around the country’s southern border – 2,000 miles of terrain between the US and Mexico where fences were built, migrant families separated, troops deployed, and thousands of asylum-seekers arrived in caravans, hoping to get into the US.
This so-called border “crisis,” as President Donald Trump has called it, has been a growing sore spot for the administration, which has struggled to crack down on illegal entries and handle a growing number of Central American families heading to the US.
The controversy reached a boiling point in late December, triggering a partial government shutdown after Congressional Democrats refused to authorise $US5.7 billion in funding for a border wall that Trump said was critical in protecting Americans.
The Trump administration has spent months railing relentlessly against both lawful and unauthorised immigrants, accusing caravans of asylum-seekers of “storming” the southern border, though thousands wait in Tijuana, Mexico, for a chance to legally apply for asylum.
But on the northern border, thousands of migrants have been making a different journey, one that has largely flown under the radar of many Americans.
Like those in the Central American caravans, these migrants also seek safety, peace, and better lives. The difference is that once they enter the US, they don’t want to stay. They are fleeing the US for Canada.
Kidasharira is one of nearly 40,000 individuals from around the world who has passed through the US and illegally crossed into Canada since early 2017.
When the illegal crossings first started to take off, most of the migrants were people who had lived in the US for years and feared deportation under Trump’s hardline immigration policies. Tens of thousands of Haitians living in the US who held Temporary Protected Status, for instance, feared being deported after the Trump administration rescinded their protections.
But the situation at the US-Canada border has evolved over the last two years. Residents of Champlain, where the vast majority of crossings happen thanks to the newly constructed RCMP outpost at the end of Roxham Road, have accepted the steady trickle of migrants as the new normal.
These days, dozens of migrants arrive at Roxham Road daily, hailing from impoverished or war-torn countries from all corners of the globe. They have learned through news articles, social media, or word-of-mouth about this backroad passage to Canada and the possibility of safety at the end of it.
Those who regularly interact with the asylum-seekers have developed their own theories as to why Canada has suddenly become such an attractive prospect.
Janet McFetridge, the deputy mayor of Champlain who greets asylum-seekers at Roxham Road nearly every day, said the country has developed a reputation as a safe haven in recent years.
“That is the idea that people around the world have of Canada: that it’s a very welcoming, open country that wants people to come,” McFetridge told INSIDER. “I can tell you from my experience that the Canadian government has made this process a very safe, orderly process for asylum-seekers to come and try to get asylum status.”
While America turns a blind eye to the migrants passing through, Canada is left to handle their claims
Even the dead end of Roxham Road bears the hallmarks of the Canadian government’s quiet acceptance.
Asylum-seekers once had to navigate a muddy, weed-filled ditch before they encountered Canadian officers waiting in parked police cruisers.
But now, a dirt path has been smoothed for them, flanked by bright blue garbage bins, and the Canadian officers wait in a new facility where a security camera spots the migrants as they arrive.
The RCMP officers appear well-rehearsed when they approach the asylum-seekers.
They ask if the migrants speak English or French, then explain that the border crossing is illegal, and that they will be arrested. That’s what happened to Kidasharira; RCMP arrested him and then processed his asylum claim.
The migrants have no option other than arrest. A longstanding legal pact between the US and Canada – called the Safe Third Country Agreement – means that migrants have to cross illegally if they’re coming from the US and want to request asylum. If they request it at an official Canadian port of entry, they will be turned away and told to make their claim in the US, where they arrived first.
“The US is a ‘safe country,’ so if you’re fleeing violence in Honduras and you land in New York City, the agreement says you need to make that claim in New York City,” immigration lawyer David Gervais told INSIDER.
The arrangement is in stark contrast to the situation on America’s southern border. There, migrants can freely seek asylum in either the US or Mexico, since there is no Safe Third Country Agreement between the two.
Gervais is the only practicing immigration lawyer in Plattsburgh, New York, a town of roughly 20,000 people that has become a conduit for the Canada-bound asylum-seekers before they reach the crossing in Champlain.
Gervais has worked with some of these asylum-seekers in the past. He said many migrants no longer believe it’s possible win an asylum case in the US, thanks to Trump’s rhetoric and his administration’s crackdown on both legal and illegal immigration.
Beyond the migrants’ perception that they’re unwanted in America, asylum claims take far longer to resolve in the US than in Canada, leaving families’ lives on hold for years as they battle a constant fear of deportation, Gervais said.
“To me, it’s sad that the US – which I think should be a beacon of freedom and rule of law – that some people feel that they can’t get that in the US anymore and they want to try their luck somewhere else,” he said. “To me, that’s a loss and it’s taken some of the veneer off of Lady Liberty as a welcoming nation.”
One woman’s mission for each migrant: A kind word and something warm for the winter
McFetridge, the Champlain deputy mayor, pulled up to the end of Roxham Road in her navy SUV, as she does every afternoon around 3:30 p.m.
It’s when the Greyhound from New York City arrives in Plattsburgh, 25 miles south of Champlain. The bus is usually filled with asylum-seekers planning to catch a taxi from the bus station to the border.
As McFetridge parked the vehicle, an RCMP officer on the opposite side of the ditch poked his head out the door of the facility and gave her a friendly wave. The Canadian authorities have grown used to seeing her.
McFetridge turned off the ignition and popped the trunk, rummaging through baskets filled with hats, mittens, snacks, and stuffed animals. It wasn’t long before the lights of an approaching taxi shone down the length of the trailer-lined road.
When the cab pulled up and a man emerged from the car, McFetridge rushed to greet him. She pulled a pair of mittens over his bare hands and fretted over the thin sweater he was wearing in the chilly October weather.
She asked him to wait, delving back into her trunk to whip out a khaki-coloured jacket that slid comfortably onto his shoulders.
“Perfect! It’s meant to be,” she said.
“God bless you. Thank you very much,” he replied.
The man told INSIDER his name was Paul and that he had come to the US from Nigeria. Canada has seen a surge in Nigerian asylum-seekers who enter the country after travelling to the US on tourist visas.
“I just have to save my life,” he said, his eyes welling up with tears.
The exchange was brief, but packed with emotion.
Ten minutes later, McFetridge gave mittens and hats to an entire family of asylum-seekers, and even placed a tiny cap on the head of a baby strapped to the mother’s back.
“I just try so hard to focus on how maybe it’s a good thing that they’re doing to help their lives. But some of it is just that uncertainty of what does the future hold?” she said. “I don’t know and I will never know.”
A global migration crisis meets anti-immigration backlash
The tensions between people like McFetridge – who help or encourage migrants on their illicit journeys – and the governments that reluctantly take them in are playing out in just about every first-world nation.
For nearly a decade, a global migrant crisis propelled by war, violence, poverty, natural disasters, and oppression has prompted people to flee their homes at a record rate. In 2014, the number of displaced people worldwide surpassed the number displaced after World War II.
Today, 68.5 million people around the world are displaced.
More than 25 million people are refugees worldwide, and roughly 1 million people seek asylum in new countries each year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Even refugee-friendly countries like Canada – which is set to take in more than 300,000 immigrants per year in the next three years – have struggled to find humane but orderly policies to handle scores of migrants illegally entering their borders.
Meanwhile, anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the Western world has bubbled up in the countries where large numbers of migrants are trying to seek refuge.
Trump is far from the only world leader to adopt a hardline stance on immigration. Even leaders who had previously been lenient on the issue have backtracked in the wake of populist outrage.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed her once-revered open-door policy, and French President Emmanuel Macron has toughened the country’s asylum system and ramped up deportations.
Canada, despite its reputation for welcoming immigrants, is no exception.
Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to increase the number of refugees Canada takes in each year, his policies and rhetoric have drawn the ire of his conservative opponents, who largely blame him for the border situation in Quebec.
Trudeau continues to be assailed for a tweet he posted in January 2017, shortly after Trump imposed his first travel ban.
“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength,” it said.
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017
Trudeau’s tweet was widely seen as a response to Trump’s actions, implying that Canada would welcome the immigrants Trump wanted to keep out. It reportedly triggered a surge in refugee and asylum inquiries at Canadian embassies worldwide and sparked mass confusion within the Canadian government.
Though the Canadian government has begun deporting some of the asylum-seekers, it has been unable to stem the flow of migrants that continues unabated.
Canadian government data show the country has been accepting more asylum claims than it rejects – but it still rejects thousands.
Between January and September of 2018, Canada rejected 6,153 asylum claims and accepted 10,832. Meanwhile, 64,017 asylum claims since 2012 remain pending, and 40,228 were made in that 2018 period.
A tiny border village has become a conduit for thousands of migrants
As he barreled down an upstate New York highway on a frigid fall morning, a taxi driver named Stephen gestured wildly behind the wheel as he explained how best to convince frightened asylum-seekers to cross the border into Canada.
His trick is simple, but ethically questionable: He memorized the words, “Go! Go! Go!” in just about every language he’s heard. He shouts it at the migrants if he notices them pause at the dirt path, to the annoyance of the RCMP.
For migrants from Turkey, it’s “git.” The Nigerians, “lo, lo, lo, lo, lo.” In Arabic, “imshi, imshi, imshi.” Stephen even learned it in Creole: “m’ale, m’ale, m’ale!’
Stephen, who asked that only his first name be used out of fear of jeopardizing his livelihood, recounted the stories asylum-seekers tell him during the quick ride from the bus station to Roxham Road.
“The guy from Palestine, he has no land. The guy from Sudan, he has political oppression. The guy from Colombia, he has his story, too. The guy from Nigeria? Who knows!” Stephen said, chuckling.
During the cab rides, the asylum-seekers often ask Stephen what will happen to them once they cross. It’s a sight he has witnessed dozens, if not hundreds of times now.
Stephen says he often drives migrants up to the border, only to watch them pause for minutes, sometimes hours, and even try to turn back. Stephen says that doesn’t happen on his watch.
“They come from a long way. They might be scared, they might have doubts, but they are committed to go,” he said. “I look at them and I say, ‘What are you waiting for? It will be ok. They are arresting you, but these are your rights.'”
Stephen doesn’t truly know whether the asylum-seekers will be ok. He said he doesn’t hear from them after they cross, and he doesn’t know whether they will eventually win asylum or be deported back to their home countries.
For many Champlain residents, the first clue they had that migrants were travelling through their town en masse were taxi cabs like Stephen’s.
McFetridge said they didn’t used to have any taxis before 2017.
Residents say it was never unusual to see people illegally crossing the border in both directions. But then hundreds started showing up in cabs each month. For two months during the summer of 2017, that number swelled to the thousands.
When she finally went up Roxham Road to investigate for the first time in the winter of 2017, McFetridge saw a family climb out of a taxi. They simply gathered their luggage and crossed the ditch. McFetridge was shocked.
“I just couldn’t believe that I saw somebody crossing an international border into the arms of the Canadian police and hopes of finding a better life,” she said.
McFetridge said people in the Champlain area have largely been supportive of the migrants.
Kiersten Brown, a 35-year-old Champlain resident who lives near Roxham Road, told INSIDER she fully supports McFetridge’s work, and wishes she could offer more help to the migrants.
“What can we do except help? Help your fellow man and help your fellow person and do what you can to make them feel safe. That’s all you can do,” Brown said. “I’m sad by the fact that it has to happen, but I’m happy that there are people that are willing to help these refugees get to safety, because it means that there’s still good in the world.”
But not all of Champlain’s residents feel that way.
Anthony Gooley, a postal worker who lives on Roxham Road just yards from the border crossing, is ambivalent about the migrants. He told INSIDER that when he moved into his trailer just months ago, he immediately noticed the taxis and airport shuttles driving up the barren road – an unexpected sight on a dead-end road.
He once saw a man drive an expensive-looking car up to the border, and leave it behind when he walked across.
Gooley said he’s never felt threatened or angered by the dozens of travellers who pass by his home each day.
“I’m kind of used to it. They just cross, then don’t try to talk to us or break in or anything,” he said.
Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read said he was alerted to the asylum-seekers’ situation two years ago by concerned residents who accused the taxi drivers of price-gouging the migrants. The situation began to look dire after some families were turned away from the border, leaving them stranded in the Plattsburgh area.
In response, Read and multiple community members formed Plattsburgh Cares, to informally monitor the taxi drivers, ensure migrants were being treated fairly, and to assist them in the event that they become stranded in Plattsburgh.
Read said he’s proud of the way the town has stepped up. Residents have their differences of opinions on what they believe America’s immigration policy should be, he said, but there’s far more unity when it comes to how immigrants should be treated locally.
“Plattsburgh is a conduit,” Read said. “There’s no reason why a small city like ours needs to make that path more difficult. That’s not our role. Our role is to take care of people, whether they’re visitors temporarily or residents.”
Read even lamented that the asylum-seekers weren’t staying in Plattsburgh longer. The predominantly white city of roughly 20,000 doesn’t have much in the way of ethnic diversity, and Read said that was to Plattsburgh’s detriment.
“I think Canada’s benefit is America’s loss,” he said. “Very rarely do I observe immigrants that don’t come here with a really strong sense of wanting to work incredibly hard to succeed. And isn’t that the American dream?”
The Canadian dream
The family of five who emerged from a taxi on Roxham Road one rainy afternoon were chasing the Canadian dream.
A man and two women hastily pulled their luggage out of the trunk of the cab, unfolding a pink stroller for the two-year-old boy while his nine-year-old sister examined her surroundings, wide-eyed.
The man told INSIDER his name was Andres and that he was the children’s uncle. He said the family had just arrived in New York from Colombia, where the children’s father was murdered two weeks earlier.
He added that they wanted nothing more than to leave their pasts behind them.
“We’re good people, we’re not here for bad things,” he said. “Only to be safe.”
Andres said he’d heard about Roxham Road through word-of-mouth back in Colombia, so his family decided to give it a try.
They have no family or friends in Canada, and no idea whether they would be allowed to stay.
Before they walked across the border together, Andres mentioned that he only really knew one thing about Canada.
“It’s cold,” he said, smiling.
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