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Migrants still attempting to cross at Roxham Road, with news of Canada-U.S. deal slow to spread

Arriving on buses from New York City over the weekend, dozens of migrants attempted to cross into Canada at Quebec’s Roxham Road despite strict new border rules between Canada and the U.S. meaning many will likely be sent back to the U.S. and denied the right to claim asylum in Canada ever again. 

One couple from Colombia was at a loss for words when they found out they could be turned back Saturday afternoon. They’d spent thousands on making it that far with their child.

At the Mountain Mart gas station and bus stop, it had started to snow, but many were dressed in clothes better suited for summer. A man from Angola wore sandals; a girl stood outside the bus in ballet flats. After travelling thousands of miles over weeks and months, the news of the revised migrant deal had not yet made its way to them. 

Several decided to get into one of the few cabs still ferrying people from the bus stop to Roxham, about 30 kilometres away.

Taxi drivers in Plattsburgh have been told to stop taking people to the border after midnight Saturday, but some have opted to do it anyway.

Under the revised Safe Third Country Agreement announced Friday, migrants can no longer claim asylum after crossing Canada’s land border, save for some exemptions. Those who do cross into Canada and try to claim asylum within 14 days. of arriving will be turned back. 

Immigration experts and advocates have condemned the new rules, saying it will push people to go underground, take dangerous risks and put pressure on front-line responders to surveil and rescue migrants attempting to cross along Canada’s nearly 9,000-km long border. Two men have died in recent months attempting to cross the Canadian border into the U.S. 

A young person waits with their families belongings after getting off a bus and waiting for a taxi to cross into Canada at Roxham Road, an unofficial crossing point from New York State to Quebec, in Plattsburgh, New York, U.S. March 25, 2023.
A young person waits with their families’ belongings after getting off a bus and waiting for a taxi to cross into Canada at Roxham Road, an unofficial crossing point from New York State to Quebec, in Plattsburgh, New York, U.S. March 25, 2023. (Carlos Osorio/REUTERS)

Sunday, another young couple, this time from Venezuela, were among the 20 or so people that took one of those rides to Roxham, after that day’s bus.

The couple lingered while others walked down the short path across the border, where an RCMP officer was arresting them and leading them into the warehouse where other migrants were waiting to be processed. 

They hesitated to cross for about eight minutes. At one point, the man asked the officer if indeed the worst possible scenario was that they would be sent back to the U.S. 

“You have to ask immigration. I’m a police officer,” the RCMP agent replied. No immigration services staff was present.

A Venezuelan couple stand on the U.S. side of Roxham Road while an RCMP on the Canadian side looks at them.
A Venezuelan couple decided to try to enter Canada at Roxham Road. “It’s better than being in our country,” the man said. (CBC)

There have been few, if any, official sources of information at Roxham for migrants to learn the risks they face in deciding to try their luck. 

A sign was unveiled at midnight Saturday when the deal came into effect. It says, “Stop. Do not cross. It is illegal to enter Canada from here. You will be arrested and may be returned to the United States. Refugee Claimants must request protection in the first safe country they arrive in.” 

RCMP officers continue to tell people they will be arrested after walking into the country, though they now point to the new sign and tell people to read it. 

Once inside, those who do not meet the exemptions to the new agreement are ferried to U.S. border patrollers at an official checkpoint, who either arrest and detain them or release them into the country. On Saturday and Sunday, the officers were not telling people that.

The exceptions to the agreement are for asylum seekers who have family members with legal status in Canada, unaccompanied minors or people who already have a Canadian visa or work permit. 

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer tells migrants to read the new border sign before they cross into Canada at Roxham Road, an unofficial crossing point from New York State to Quebec for asylum seekers, in Champlain, New York, U.S. March 25, 2023.
A Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer tells migrants to read the new border sign before they cross into Canada at Roxham Road. (Christinne Muschi/REUTERS)

After another five minutes or so, the Venezuelan couple walked across. A CBC reporter on the Canadian side of the border asked the man why he made the decision. 

“We want to take that one per cent chance. We want to risk it, because we don’t have any other solutions,” he said. “It’s better than being in our country.” 

Stéphanie Valois, the president of the Quebec association of immigration lawyers (AQAADI), said she doubts those who have been attempting to cross are aware that by doing so they will be denied the right to make an asylum claim in Canada in the future. 

“Never, ever again,” Valois said over the phone Sunday evening. “I don’t think people realize that.” 

She said some migrants who have been found ineligible in the past have been able to stay in the country following an assessment of the risks of deporting them to their country requested by their lawyer, but that those cases are rare. 

According to the Canadian Border Services Agency, by noon Sunday, two people had been returned to the United States and four others’ requests to pursue asylum claims were found eligible. 

Olivier Nanfah crosses into Canada at Roxham Road, an unofficial crossing point from New York State to Quebec for asylum seekers, in Champlain, New York, U.S. March 25, 2023. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio
A man from Cameroon was among the several migrants who decided to attempt to get into Canada via Roxham Road on Saturday. (Carlos Osorio/REUTERS)

Olivier Nanfah, a 42-year-old Cameroonian man who arrived at Plattsburgh by bus at 4 a.m. Saturday had hesitated about taking one of the rides to Roxham Road. He looked up schedules and prices for tickets heading back to New York City, but said, “What am I going to do there?” 

Shortly before 7 a.m., he walked into Canada at Roxham and was arrested. Nanfah briefly stepped outside to travel between the two RCMP buildings a short while later. Through the fence, he told CBC he’d been told by officers he would be sent back to the U.S. 

CBC tried to contact Nanfah and a man from Haiti who attempted to cross with him, Onil Lubin, on Sunday, but neither replied. 

Khadim Dia, a young man from Senegal who had crossed at Roxham at around 11 p.m. Friday — before the deadline and hours before Nanfah and Lubin — wearing a tuque and a grey hoodie with stars on it, wrote to CBC Sunday evening to say he had just left the shelter migrants are housed in near the border. 

“I am in Canada. I just left the camp and I am at the hotel,” Dia said on WhatsApp. “I feel good but it’s a bit cold,” he added with an emoji depicting a frozen face. “I didn’t have any problems. They asked me questions, took my credentials and I left.”

Frances Ravensbergen, a volunteer for a group called Bridges Not Borders, was on the Canadian side of Roxham Sunday. She typically hands mittens or socks to migrants on the U.S., calling it a way to bear witness at the rural illegal border crossing. 

Ravensbergen said the decision was made by the Canadian and U.S. governments without apparently consulting groups who work directly with migrants. 

“Nobody was prepped for this and yet they had time to make a sign,” she said. 

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