- Over the last two years, as Americans’ attention has turned to the country’s southern border, one tiny road along the northern border has become a hotspot for asylum-seekers looking for safety and a better life in Canada.
- Migrants from around the world have been coming to the village of Champlain in upstate New York for a chance to cross the US-Canada border and request asylum.
- Champlain’s deputy mayor, Janet McFetridge, has personally greeted hundreds of them, staking out the border-crossing almost every single day and bidding migrants farewell with hats and winter wear.
- “It’s just so many separate stories and separate wishes and hopes and dreams, and people just like all of us just wanting a better life for their families,” she told INSIDER.
CHAMPLAIN, NY – Janet McFetridge dumps a handful of trash on the driver’s seat of her car, pointing to the used credit cards, bus tickets, and scrunched-up bits of paper.
She can’t bring herself to throw them away. They’re the only traces of a long journey that asylum-seekers have left behind in the United States as they fled to Canada for their lives.
The migrants she meets are often in the US for just hours – they land at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City, take Greyhound buses roughly 300 miles north to Plattsburgh, then hail a 25-minute cab ride to Champlain, the tiny upstate village bordering Canada, where thousands of migrants have crossed in the last two years.
It’s at the northern end of Roxham Road where McFetridge greets the migrants, doling out hats, mittens, and stuffed animals to the families before they cross the border, then occasionally picking up the litter they leave behind.
McFetridge said she doesn’t like to think about the issue in big-picture terms – she avoids thinking about whether the trend of thousands of migrants fleeing the US for Canada is a good thing, whether it will continue indefinitely, whether the families will be allowed to stay in Canada.
She said she prefers to take things one step at a time, one migrant at a time, one piece of litter at a time.
“It’s just so many separate stories and separate wishes and hopes and dreams, and people just like all of us just wanting a better life for their families,” she told INSIDER. “And yet is this the right step? I don’t know this, I can’t know this … I’m continuing as long as it’s going on because I feel strongly that they need a kind word that they need something to keep them warm.”
On one particular afternoon at the end of October, McFetridge drove INSIDER reporters to the border to demonstrate how she works. Just minutes after she parked her navy SUV and turned off the ignition, we spotted the headlights of a distant taxi coming up the road.
McFetridge stood at the ready, with her trunk popped open to reveal crates and baskets full of winter wear.
On the Canadian side of the border, several Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers emerged from a small, white facility, prepared to make a potential arrest.
The moment the migrant man stepped out of the vehicle, pulling out his luggage, McFetridge hurried over to him, holding a set of mittens and conferring quietly with him over the light sweater he was wearing despite the freezing temperature.
“OK, let me look,” she said, running to her trunk, whipping out a khaki jacket that she slid onto his shoulders.
“What do you think?” she said. “I think it fits – I think it’s good. Perfect! It’s meant to be.”
“God bless you. Thank you very much,” he responded, before holding his arms out for a hug.
The man told INSIDER his name was Paul, and he had come to the United States from Nigeria, so he could flee to Canada through Roxham Road.
“I just have to save my life,” he said, his eyes welling up with tears.
He crossed the border, and RCMP arrested him to begin his asylum case.
Litter, taxis, and hats
The litter is how McFetridge first got involved at Roxham Road.
In early 2017, the crossings first started to occur en masse, prompted by a wave of migrants who feared that the Trump administration would rescind the Temporary Protected Status shielding hundreds of thousands of migrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other countries from deportation.
Confused by the slew of taxis she saw suddenly driving through her village and up Roxham Road, McFetridge decided to follow their route one day.
“Up here, we don’t have any taxis. And all of a sudden there were taxis going through our village, carrying people somewhere,” she said. “So when I did go to Roxham for the first time, and I did see a family climb out of a taxi and gather up their luggage and cross, I 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.”
McFetridge was wary of approaching the migrants at first, not wanting to intrude. But she decided she needed to do something about the litter.
“It was getting pretty messy up there,” she said. “So I was there quite a bit, and I was interacting a little bit more with people. They would talk to me, and as soon as it started to get cold, which was about a year ago, I could see that a lot of people were not at all prepared for winter. They would have on a sweater, no gloves, no hat, no scarf, no winter jackets.”
She began collecting donations from her friends – sometimes old or outgrown winter wear, and sometimes freshly knitted. Either way, McFetridge said, the migrants were grateful.
“It’s cool in Canada,” she said.
McFetridge has become a fixture of Roxham Road, recognisable to the RCMP officers on the Canadian side, who often give her a friendly wave when they see her SUV pull up at the dead end.
‘Hype about the hatred’
A mother and a retired teacher, McFetridge is no stranger to creating rules and boundaries – and she has laid out a number of them for herself on her daily trips to Roxham Road.
She visits every day between around 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., adjusting her schedule around the daily Greyhound bus arrivals, which ferry migrants from New York City to Plattsburgh, where they catch taxis to Roxham Road.
She goes every day except Sundays, which she leaves to a different set of volunteers, the Canadian group Bridges Without Borders. She said it’s a good thing others are willing to wait at the crossing, handing out winter wear to migrants.
At least she has one day off per week to decompress.
The despair is most acute when McFetridge sees families with young children. Just minutes after Paul crossed the border with his new khaki jacket, a taxi pulled up bearing an entire family of Nigerian asylum-seekers.
McFetridge homed in on the mother, who was strapping a small baby to her back. McFetridge leapt into action, handing a stuffed toy to an older boy, and placing a tiny blue cap on the baby’s head.
“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.”
McFetridge’s next rule is to never gives the migrants legal advice. She knows she has no idea what will happen to them once they cross the border, and she worries she could get in trouble if she’s seen as offering too much help. Plus, she said she’s more of a listener than a talker.
But most importantly of all, she never asks the migrants where they’re from.
“I do that for a very particular reason,” she said. “And that is because I think, inherently, we all have some stereotypes of different countries, probably most of them false, and I don’t really need to know where they’re from because it really doesn’t matter to me.”
McFetridge said she doesn’t want to know the slightest amount of information that could prejudice her, or cause her to cast doubt on their intentions for seeking asylum in Canada. The migrants often tell her about their home countries, unprompted, but she makes it a point never to deliberately ask.
It’s an attitude that Champlain residents are very familiar with – McFetridge is one of the most recognisable figures in town. In addition to her daily trips to Roxham Road, McFetridge is the deputy mayor of Champlain, and can often be seen hosting community events and volunteering.
McFetridge said the praise is not a universal reaction – she’s had her fair share of criticism, particularly from the Canadian side of the border. But she said she doesn’t let it faze her.
“There’s more hype about the hatred than there is about the compassion,” she said.
“I guess I’d like to be an optimist and say that [America] still stands for people, that welcomes people from all different backgrounds. And I think that’s what we’re built on.”
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.