WNY could see increase in asylum-seekers crossing to Canada

This story was produced as a larger project by Tim O'Shei for the 2020 National Fellowship, which focuses on explaining the myriad mental health challenges refugees face and taking readers up close to those realities through the experience of families.

His other stories include:

Finding true safety and refuge to build a life in Buffalo

Three ways to help refugees – and each other – create a healthy path

Changing the system: Leaders share ideas for improving refugee health care

CHAMPLAIN — Around 9 o’clock on a late summer morning, Janet McFetridge answered a call from a federal officer who was asking for help. At the nearby Champlain Port of Entry, a crossingpoint on the New York-Quebec border, Canadian officials had delivered two parents and their baby into the care of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The young family, who came to North America from Haiti, was seeking refuge in Canada. Canada wouldn’t take them, and so the family ended up back in the United States, with nowhere to go.

“They don’t have much,” the officer said on the phone, by McFetridge’s recollection, “but we were able to give them some diapers.” 

McFetridge has gotten about 10 of these calls from CBP since March 20, when the United States and Canada largely closed their border in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Whoever calls me seems to be compassionate,” said McFetridge, a founding member of Plattsburgh Cares, which formed in 2017 to support the people who have come to Plattsburgh from around the world, hoping to find their way across the border and build new lives in Canada. More than 50,000 have done that since the election of President Trump, who promised and then delivered a tough-on-immigration border policy.

But a court case in Canada could potentially result in the nullification of the Safe Third Country Agreement, a pact that governs the way both countries handle asylum claims. A federal judge in Canada has ruled that the U.S. is no longer a safe place for refugees, and if that decision stands after a review period, it will have implications across the 5,525-mile border, including the potential increase in the number of asylum-seekers who cross into Canada through ports in Western New York.

'Don't come here'

Most of the people who come to Plattsburgh arrive via bus or train, or sometimes plane, and take a 35-minute cab ride here to sparsely populated Champlain, where McFetridge is village mayor. They ride to the end of Roxham Road, a nondescript rural lane with a horse pasture, trailers and a handful of homes, and then walk on the gravel into Canada. Once they cross, Canadian police officers – who are already stationed at Roxham – arrest them. When that happens, the people immediately claim political asylum.

It isn’t legal, but it works.

Or at least it used to work.

The Safe Third Country Agreement between the United States and Canada requires refugees to seek asylum in whichever country they are in first. If they come from a dangerous situation in they home country and find their way to the United States, the Safe Third pact requires them to seek refuge in the States – even if they believe Canada is the safer option. But there’s a loophole: People who find their way into Canada between ports of entry, perhaps by jetting across the Niagara River or – more likely, and more safely – crossing at Roxham Road, they can claim asylum there.

Or at least they could. 

When the pandemic began, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would return all asylum-seekers, including those who crossed irregularly between ports, to the United States. That, along with Amtrak and Greyhound stopping train and bus service from New York City to Plattsburgh, cut the flow of people northward to a trickle. McFetridge still receives emails through the Plattsburgh Cares website from people wanting to claim asylum in Canada, but she tells them, “Don’t come here. You can’t cross.”

Community help

Frances Ravensbergen, who lives just across the border in Hemmingford, Quebec, and is a member of the refugee support group Bridges Not Borders, said, “We're getting an increasing volume of emails that we're documenting of people who are saying, ‘Can I cross? Can I cross? Tell me how to cross,’ even though we're saying, ‘Unless you've got a really close relative in Canada, and in case of extreme possibility that you will be killed when you get sent back home, your chances are really, really small. You're going to be sent back to the American side.’ ”

Sometimes those individuals are U.S. green card holders, or here on a visa that still has time before it expires. The people sent back may also have children who were born in the United States and are therefore citizens, or be here with pending removal proceedings or a notice to appear. In cases such as those, CBP officers may ask for community assistance.

“CBP will often communicate with local community organizations for a variety of reasons,” Chief CBP Officer Aaron Bowker told The News in an email. “In this particular case, CBP can contact Plattsburgh Cares when they encounter individuals and/or families who have no means post CBP inspection.”

Bowker added, “It is not a common occurrence that their assistance is needed, but they have been helpful in assisting individuals who would otherwise be stuck at the port by stepping in and providing some basic services."

 The family from Haiti is an example. McFetridge went to the port of entry and met the family. They spoke Creole – no English – and the father knew a bit of French. McFetridge, who is a retired French teacher, spoke to him slowly “to make sure that he was understanding what was happening to them.” She had recruited a local cab driver to take the family to Plattsburgh, where another member of Plattsburgh Cares who has connections in social services would help them get a hotel.

“I was well aware that they're putting their trust in me in this cab driver to take them someplace safe,” McFetridge recalled. “I can't even imagine doing that myself. So they were very nervous.”

McFetridge asked the man where they had friends. “Florida,” the father told her. He said, “We can’t go back to our country.” He told McFetridge that a member of his wife’s family had been assassinated, and they felt at risk.

The couple was terrified, and the man was confused. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t bring the family across the border. “All kinds of people got into Canada last year,” he said.

“Yes,” McFetridge said, then explained the situation with the virus. “It’s not going to work right now. We need you to be someplace safe in the United States.”

“Will you come with us to Plattsburgh?” the man asked.

McFetridge wouldn’t do that – with the virus, she’s careful not to drive with people.

“I’m sorry, I can’t come, but my friend is meeting you,” she said. “This driver is a friend of mine.”

The goal, McFetridge knew, would be to get this family to Florida, where they could wait for the opportunity to head back north and claim asylum. Plattsburgh Cares has set up a network of drivers who, in many cases, help get families to Albany, where trains and buses are running.

“You are safe – that is our only concern,” said McFetridge, who later heard the family made it to Florida. “You are safe."

A question of safety

But how safe is the United States for refugees? That question is central to a summer ruling by a Canadian federal judge that, if it stands, could knock down the Safe Third Country Agreement and have implications for the flow of refugee crossings across the border, including in Western New York.

In July, Judge Ann Marie McDonald ruled that the STCA violates human rights and is invalid because of “significant evidence of the risks and challenges” when asylum-seekers are returned to the United States. McDonald wrote: “The evidence demonstrates that the immediate consequence to ineligible STCA claimants is that they will be imprisoned solely for having attempted to make a refugee claim in Canada.”

The case was filed in Canada on behalf of people from Syria, Ethiopia and El Salvador who tried to make asylum claims by entering Canada from the United States at official ports, were denied and returned to the U.S., and then put into custody. McDonald noted the “cruel and unusual detention conditions” in the United States and said, “The penalization of the simple act of making a refugee claim is not in keeping with the spirit or the intention of the STCA.”

 The judgement has a six-month review period and is being challenged by the federal government. If the ruling were to stand and STCA is struck down, then crossing at places like Roxham Road would no longer be necessary. Asylum claimants could simply cross at official ports of entry, including the Peace Bridge, Rainbow and Lewiston-Queenston bridges in Western New York.

“It could end up being a major issue around those bridges,” said Craig Damian Smith, associate director of the Global Migration Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Smith, who has extensively studied migration at the northern border, including the situation at Roxham, noted the “logistics and capacity” issues. Montreal had to build up an infrastructure of shelter capacity and legal aid in 2017 and 2018 to handle the influx of people at Roxham, he said, and it’s possible that the same would need to happen in Southern Ontario. “If the scale of the flows were anything like what we saw at Roxham Road,” Smith said, “there would have to be significantly increased reception capacity."

Both governments are standing behind the STCA. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, in response to an inquiry from The News, responded in an email: “Canada and the United States have a long history of cooperative and respectful asylum policy. This cooperative agreement has been operating successfully for almost 15 years. Although we do not comment on the internal affairs of Canada, we stand confident in the strength and the future of our mutually beneficial partnership; and we refer you to the Government of Canada to discuss the particulars of the case.”

A Canadian government official, meanwhile, declined to be interviewed about the case, because the appeal is ongoing. But Khawar Nasim, acting consul general of Canada in New York, told The News in a statement: “Canada believes that the STCA remains a comprehensive vehicle for the compassionate, fair and orderly handling of asylum claims in our two countries. The Government of Canada is appealing the decision of the Federal Court, because we believe there are errors in some of the key findings. There are important legal principles to be determined in this case, and it is the responsibility of the Government of Canada to appeal to ensure clarity on the legal framework governing asylum law.”

Observers from both sides note that the six-month review period overlaps the U.S. presidential election – and that, above all, may determine what happens with the flow of refugees and asylum claims at the border. At some point, the pandemic will be brought under control and the border will reopen. If a Biden administration is in place, the Trump-era tough immigration policies would likely lighten. But if Trump wins a second four-year term, Smith said, it's likely that more people in the United States with temporary protected status or "Dreamers" – young adults who came to America as children with undocumented status – may consider moving north. “The dynamics could shift very radically,” he said, “about the characteristics of the asylum-seekers coming to Canada.”
This article was produced as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 National Fellowship.
[This story was originally published by The Buffalo News.]