By Kathreen Harrison

“We are looking for a homeland. Asylum seekers are humans.”

— Ahmed H., originally from Egypt

The southern border of the U.S. is frequently in the news in relation to immigration, but the northern border – particularly the stretch between Quebec and New York – is also of great importance to those seeking refuge.

Ahmed H. is one example of the many tens of thousands of asylum seekers in recent years who have focused their sights on starting a new life in Canada instead of the U.S. – pulled by reports of good treatment in Canada, and having a fair chance at being granted asylum, and pushed by inhospitable conditions in the U.S.

Speaking from Staten Island, Ahmed H. (whose name has been changed for fear of reprisals) said, “My wife and I wanted to apply for asylum in the U.S., but we realized that with the broken immigration system in the U.S., and because of how few people of Middle Eastern descent are granted asylum in the U.S., we could wait for six, seven, 10 years, and then after all that be denied admission and have to leave.”

So, Ahmed H. and his wife decided to apply for refuge in Canada instead, “where asylum seekers are treated better.” A successful engineer back home, he  was targeted by his government because of his political views. He was jailed, threatened with death, and told his daughter would be taken from him and his wife. So they left everything – land, house, car, savings. “We came looking for a safe, stable life for our daughter. She needs friends, a school, a life. We came to the U.S. to find safety. We came because we had no choice. But now we hope to find refuge in Canada.”

Diane Noiseux, Joint Council for Economic Opportunity in Plattsburgh, N.Y., discussed what life is like for refugees in Canada. “They are given shelter, health insurance, work papers, access to education,” she said. And this financial and social support – including the opportunity to apply to work right away (though there can be a processing delay) – is one reason so many asylum seekers choose to file claims in Canada instead of in the U.S.  

Another major reason is the shorter wait time for a hearing, or review of refugee claims. In recent years that wait time has lengthened to approximately two years in Canada, because of the large number of applications filed, but that is still shorter for some in Canada than in the U.S., where asylum seekers have been known to wait upwards of a decade just to have their hearing. While waiting, asylum seekers in the U.S. may not be allowed to work for their first year in the country, must rely on charity, and are unable to see family members they had to leave back in their country of origin. The wait in Canada for family reunification can also be quite long. On top of leaving a homeland, this loss of family compounds trauma. And so does worry for those in harm’s way back home

One distressed man, A.K., waiting for his asylum hearing in the U.S., wrote Amjambo Africa to say, “The government has started harassing my family back home now. Also, my medical condition is really bad, and I don’t know the right way to protect my family back home in the time I have to wait for the asylum interview in the asylum office, as it may take years and end in disappointment.”

Ahmed H. wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October, referring to Canada as “the guardian of humanity and human rights,” and deploring the “miserable life and unstable situation” of many refugees in the U.S. He wrote to express the sentiments of asylum seekers in the U.S., saying that compared to so many, he and his family were lucky. “For us, we have enough money to survive … we have a bed – but some we know don’t … some people have spent all their money, and in the end they are deported. Everything is lost … you can’t close the door in people’s faces. They don’t have other options. They lose all hope … so many people in the U.S. are suffering. Asylum seekers should be treated a different way.”

While some people, like Ahmed H. and A.K., arrive in the U.S. with the intention of applying for asylum here, others plan to continue to Canada right from the beginning. Most migrants who arrive in the northeast U.S. come from Central America, Africa, and Haiti. Many flew from Africa into Ecuador or Brazil, because visa rules are less stringent in these countries, and then crossed the Darien Gap – which straddles Columbia and Panama – on foot. This involved a trip rife with both natural and man-made dangers, often including smugglers, bandits wielding machetes, treacherous river crossings, death following starvation or injuries – and often all this is done with young children and babies in tow.

Some of these migrants are now in Maine, including those who arrived during the summer of 2019, known in Maine as the “Expo Summer.” Others have arrived more recently, over the course of the pandemic, and are living in budget motels in the greater Portland area and surrounding towns, awaiting asylum interviews. Still others are on the way now, with no end of migrants in sight.

Dr. Kathryn Dennler

Dr. Kathryn Dennler, a researcher affiliated with the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, Canada, points to “a massive number of dynamics” coming together to drive the situation at the U.S.-Canada border: a rise in persecution across the globe, shrinking access to asylum in the U.S., more and more countries restricting immigration, the pandemic, and countries behaving counter to international commitments to protect refugees.

Since 2016, so many asylum seekers in terrible straits have approached the Canadian border from the U.S. side that a grassroots coalition of non profits, legal experts, faith communities, and others, formed to try to help these asylum seekers understand the immigration rules on both sides of the border, and provide humanitarian assistance when needed. A few of the organizations involved are Bridges Not Borders, Plattsburgh Cares, Canadian Sanctuary Network, and University of Detroit Mercy School of Law Immigration Clinic – which has represented about 16 family groups in connection with Canada/U.S. border issues, and consulted with many more.

Quebec sees the largest numbers of crossings in Canada, with Ontario a close second.  In 2019 alone, 16,660 people crossed at official land ports of entry in Quebec (out of a total of 20,485 in all of Canada), and 16,136 crossed at irregular locations in Quebec (out of a total of 16,503 known irregular crossers).

But in March 2020, the entire U.S.-Canada border slammed shut to most asylum seekers, as well as to everyone else. Those who were stuck on the U.S. side, and those who were still en route to the U.S. – possibly slogging through the Darien Gap, or somewhere else in Central America – on the long journey to claiming asylum in Canada – could do nothing but wait for the border to open again. People depleted all their resources; families with children crowded into the apartments of acquaintances or lived on the streets; tent cities sprang up; people went hungry.  

Some asylum seekers approached the border during the pandemic, hoping against hope that they could somehow get across, but very few were successful. In the first nine months of 2021, 389 asylum seekers were apprehended between ports of entry in Quebec. Members of the border network did what they could to provide shelter, food, and transportation to these refugees, but their resources were limited, and the condition of the refugees was desperate. Some of those with exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), an agreement between the U.S. and Canada that went into effect in 2004, were allowed to cross at ports of entry. However, according to Alex Vernon, Director of the Immigration Law Clinic at Mercy School of Law, sometimes the Canada Border Services Agency made mistakes, and people incorrectly received an exclusion order (which can be challenged with the proper documentation).

Then on November 21, Canada announced that refugee claimants who enter Canada at irregular entry points, in between official land ports of entry – such as the internationally known Roxham Road crossing – will no longer be directed back to the U.S. for the first time since the pandemic started. Word of this announcement spread rapidly, and asylum seekers have begun heading to the border again, hoping to be allowed into Canada for the first time since March 2020. They are showing up at official land crossings, as well as irregular crossings, and many are unfamiliar with Canadian immigration rules.

The Safe Third Country Agreement recognizes a family member as the following:
spouse • legal guardian • child • father or mother • sister or brother • grandfather or grandmother • grandchild • uncle or aunt • nephew or niece • common-law partner • same-sex spouse
Documentation is required.

Under the STCA, if someone crosses into Canada from the U.S. at an official border crossing and asks for asylum, they will be sent back to the U.S., unless they fall under one of four exceptions. The four exceptions are family member exceptions; unaccompanied minors exception; document holder exceptions; and public interest exceptions. If someone is sent back to the U.S. because they are found not to have an exception, they are under an exclusion order and can never again make another refugee claim in Canada. Sometimes, those who are sent back end up in detention, or deportation proceedings

For those who cross the border at an irregular crossing such as Roxham Road, by Canadian law the STCA does not apply. These people should be able to enter Canada and make a claim for refugee status. Therefore, traversing the border at an irregular crossing could well be the best way for many people to cross the border. And people who get excluded according to STCA can later try to cross irregularly into Canada. They will be eligible only for a pre-removal risk assessment at that point, which is a less robust process, but if successful they will have refugee  or protected person status. Then they will be able to apply for permanent residency. If unsuccessful, they will eventually be sent back to their home country. 

“In many cases, just showing up at a port of entry is the worst choice,” said Vernon.

“The stakes are high,” Dennler agreed. “There can be dire consequences, sometimes ending in detention and deportation.”

The STCA is central to the question of whether someone can safely make a claim at an official land port of entry in Canada. The agreement states that refugees must apply for asylum in the first safe country they reach. That is the U.S. for those arriving from either South America or Central America.  Unfortunately, many people misunderstand the family member exception to the STCA, and end up being refused entry to Canada. These people interpret the exception to mean that if someone has any family member in Canada, the claimant can get into the country and file for asylum. But, in fact, only some categories of relatives count, according to the agreement. Cousins, for example, do not. Neither do godparents. Neither do brothers- or sisters-in-law. Furthermore, the exact immigration status of the family member matters, along with other considerations.

Ahmed H. condemned the STCA. “It isn’t the fault of refugees if they don’t have relatives in Canada, to be able to cross the borders legally according to the exceptions of the Safe Third Country Agreement … it is neither fair nor equal … why are those refugees preferred over those who don’t have relatives in Canada?”

Alex Vernon

Many Canadians agree with Ahmed H. They believe that the STCA contravenes Canada’s international human rights obligations, and have been working through the federal courts to get the agreement suspended. The crux of their argument is that the U.S. is not a safe country for asylum seekers, and that sending refugee claimants back to the U.S. violates their human rights. The Canadian Council for Refugees website recounts the experience of one asylum seeker who was sent back to the U.S. because she did not meet an exception to the STCA. Her experience illustrates why many think that the U.S should not be considered a safe country.

Morgan (not her real name) came to the Canadian border in 2015 to make a refugee claim. To her dismay, Canadian officers did not ask her about why she had fled her home country (where she faces threats to her life for speaking out against political corruption). She was instead asked whether she had any family in Canada, to which she answered no. She was then sent back to the United States, exhausted, confused and frightened. … She spent 10 days in solitary confinement in Clinton County [N.Y.] … Finally, after 51 days, she was released… After her release, she continued her efforts to gain asylum…In August 2017, following the example of thousands of others, she crossed the border at Roxham Road. She is now in Canada, but the impact of the Safe Third Country Agreement continues to prevent her from moving forward. She cannot make a refugee claim, as the law allows a person to make just one claim in their lifetime. A moratorium on removals to her country of origin protects her from deportation, but she remains in a legal vacuum, without official status.

Now that the border has opened again, members of the grassroots coalition are steeling themselves to help the thousands of people heading to tiny Plattsburgh, NY – a small city of just under 20,000. But the coalition’s resources are thin – most member organizations rely on donations, grants, and volunteer labor. Members cautioned that while they try hard to help those who arrive at the border and are unable to cross for one reason or another, they are limited in what they can do.

Diane Wardell, a volunteer with Plattsburgh Cares, stressed that the area is very rural; local hotels are often full (and members of the network cannot afford to support families in them for more than a few days, anyway); shelters are also full (and the closest shelters are Vive in Buffalo or Freedom House in Detroit). Only a small amount of humanitarian relief in the form of taxi and bus money, some food, and warm clothing is available from volunteers. “But we do try to do what we can to get people to their next safe place in their long migration journey,” Wardell said.

Since 2017, Bridges Not Borders has been an important source of online information for people seeking to cross irregularly into Canada at Roxham Road. The traffic on their website has risen sharply since the pandemic. They also receive many emails from desperate people who have been directed back under the pandemic order, or who were excluded under the STCA. 

‘’In many cases there was little I could do but provide a sympathetic response,” said Wendy Ayotte, member of the coordinating committee of Bridges Not Borders. “The most rewarding times have been when I was able to identify that someone who had been directed back could in fact qualify for an exception to the STCA, or was exempt under the terms of the border closure (e.g. stateless persons). Some of these folks then got help from Vive Shelter’s legal team, to prepare for the STCA interview. I’ve now heard from several people who were able to enter Canada successfully at a port of entry. Now that people crossing at Roxham will no longer be directed back to the U.S., it’s a huge relief,’’ she said.

Allies agree that the rules and regulations connected with crossing the U.S.-Canada border are confusing, and stress that careful research is a good idea before deciding on a plan for crossing.  

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