MONTREAL—In Pascal’s Canadian dream, he becomes a doctor.
He’s only been in the country a month. He has a long way to go. But consider how long he’s been running, and how far he came to get here.
He left his home in Cap-Haïtien, on the north coast of Haiti, for the Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern half of the island of Hispanola, right next to Cuba.
From there, he travelled with others in a car to Brazil. From Brazil, west to Peru, then north, through Ecuador, Colombia and Panama, where they were set upon by thieves who stole pretty much everything — except for the money that Pascal had hidden in a hollowed-out deodorant container.
This money allowed him to continue his northward journey, through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States, said 39-year-old Pascal, who requested that his last name not be published for security and privacy reasons.
On May 21, he arrived at the Canada-U.S. border, where more than 13,000 people so far this year have been arrested by Royal Canadian Mounted Police as they take their first hesitant steps along a dirt path at the end of Roxham Road onto Canadian soil.
Technically a dead-end street, Roxham Road is a sleepy country route watched by high-tech border surveillance cameras. The passage that starts in New York state and continues into Hemmingford, Que., stands as the worst-kept secret of those seeking refuge from despots, disasters and all manner of dire circumstances, including North American immigration laws.
Thanks to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions on border crossings, the return of air travel and a general increase in the numbers of people seeking asylum, 2022 is on track to become a record year for the controversial crossing point.
The federal government, which screens newcomers to determine their eligibility to make a refugee claim, is now straining to keep pace with the flow.
The result is delay and despair: a months-long wait during which asylum seekers receive social assistance payments but are denied a temporary work permit in a country struggling to meet its labour needs.
“They want to work,” said Stéphanie Valois, president of the Quebec Association of Immigration Lawyers. “They’ve got nothing — no money, no furniture. They’ve got nothing and they need it.”
This could also be a decisive and pivotal moment for a haphazard arrangement that allows refugee claimants to cross at Roxham Road, make their asylum claim while already on Canadian soil, and thus bypass the terms of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which obliges asylum seekers to make their claim in the first country they reach.
The Quebec government, facing a fall re-election, wants Ottawa to plug the hole in the nearly 9,000-kilometre Canada-U.S. border, saying that it has neither the resources nor capacity to deal with the flow of migrants.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the Safe Third Country Agreement which, if successful, could allow asylum seekers to make a claim at any official Canadian border crossing — spreading Quebec’s burden more equitably across the country.
“We have an obligation to examine the cases of people who seek protection here,” says Wendy Ayotte, founder of Bridges not Borders, a support group for asylum seekers.
“Of course it is correct to say that it isn’t a fair distribution of people entering irregularly into Canada. Obviously it’s not fairly distributed across the country, but surely the response … is to call for the end of the (Safe Third Country Agreement) and then people can go anywhere.”
The Star met Pascal, a community organizer who said he was beaten and threatened by members of a local Haitian political party, at Maison d’Haïti, a Montreal community centre where he had come, immigration documents in hand, to consult Peggy Larose, a social worker.
From her cramped office behind the reception desk and the centre’s coffee bar, Larose helps Haitian refugee claimants complete their myriad forms and find housing, food and jobs, all while listening to the thoughts that weigh heavily on their minds.
“They are long stories and difficult stories. There are stories that rip you apart, that make you want to scream and cry out,” she said, recounting the plight of one couple who told her how their young daughter had been struck and killed by a truck while they travelled through Mexico, and was buried where she died.
Evidence of the great distances and hardships that people endure to get to Canada lies in the high grass on either side of Roxham Road.
The two halves of an identification card for a 25-year-old woman who stayed at a homeless shelter in Portland, Maine; part of a bright yellow Bancolombia bank card; the four ripped quarters of a blue plastic pass issued to a Nigerian man upon his admission to to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing centre in Tacoma, Wash.
Relics, secrets or the shame from past lives that people hope to leave behind.
Last Sunday, a group of seven people — three men and four women — boarded American Airlines Flight 1280 from Phoenix to New York, paying $378.60 (U.S.) each for the second-to-last leg of their journey to Canada. Their tickets were recovered floating in the water of a stream that runs alongside Roxham Road.
The next day, Monday, a woman named Jakelina boarded an Adirondack Trailways bus in New York City at 6:30 p.m., arrived in Plattsburgh, N.Y., at 1:20 a.m. on Tuesday and made her way toward Roxham Road, discarding the receipt for the $77.25 trip moments before starting a new life in a new country.
Roxham Road owes its popularity among those fleeing their homeland to the immigration policies of former U.S. president Donald Trump.
In January 2017, Trump signed an executive order banning Syrian refugees and blocking citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States — the so-called Muslim ban.
Later that year, 58,000 Haitians living in the U.S. learned of Trump’s plan to let their “Temporary Protected Status” expire, depriving them of protections under the special programs for migrants from countries deemed unsafe or which had suffered humanitarian emergencies, as Haiti did during the 2010 earthquake.
These policies prompted a flight to Canada with little modern precedent as asylum seekers took advantage of a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement that allowed them to avoid being forcibly returned to the U.S. by crossing into Canada at a spot between official border posts — something known as an “irregular border crossing.”
In 2017, 18,836 people were intercepted by the RCMP crossing irregularly into Canada in the province of Quebec, compared to 1,018 who were intercepted in Ontario and 718 in British Columbia, 14 in Saskatchewan and six in Alberta.
The phenomenon — and the provincial ratio — continued in 2018 and 2019 but dropped sharply with the arrival of COVID and the closure of the Canada-U.S. border.
“If you crossed at Roxham Road, you were given a notice by the Canadian government known as a ‘direct back’ notice, which means that we’re not willing to hear your claim right now, we’re going to send you back to the U.S. and at some later date when we think the time is good we will allow you to return to pursue your claim,” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
She says that some of those who wanted to make refugee claims in Canada were subsequently detained in U.S. immigration detention centres and, in at least a few instances, were deported to their country of origin.
When the Canada-U.S. border reopened in November 2021 asylum seekers returned almost immediately to Roxham Road.
Compared to October 2021, when there were 96 RCMP interceptions, 832 people were picked up after crossing in November and 2,778 in December. That monthly tally has remained steady through to May 2022 — the last month for which statistics are available — when 3,449 people entered through the Quebec crossing.
In response to questions from the Star, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said that federal officials “continuously monitor conditions and developments in other countries to inform our planning.”
The government declined to speak about the possible reasons for the increased volume of people crossing the border, though others attribute it to the newfound freedom of movement that people around the world are experiencing after lengthy pandemic lockdowns
“I think it’s just normal that — like everyone else — people are starting to move again. These are people who were blocked in their home countries or in transit on their way to Canada,” says Valois, who practises immigration law in Montreal.
“Looking at the bigger picture, there are many more people entering the United States each day and there is also an increase in the number of asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S., so the percentage of those who make it to Canada is really small.”
Not so small that they escaped the attention of Quebec Premier François Legault.
In mid-May, Legault, who casts himself as a fiscally conservative nationalist whose policies are guided by common sense, complained about the “unacceptable” number of people crossing the border into the province and the strain it was placing on the province’s resources.
“We are the only province that has a wide-open road named Roxham, and the federal government, which is responsible for controlling the borders, is not doing its job,” he said.
Legault added that there is a long delay in making an initial eligibility assessment to determine whether there are sufficient grounds for a refugee-claim hearing. During this time, the province is obliged by law to provide health-care services and financial assistance to asylum seekers, he complained.
“A good number of these people aren’t real refugees,” the Quebec premier said in a news conference. “A refugee is someone who faces physical risk in their country, but the majority are not refugees and eventually, when their case is analyzed, they are refused and returned to their country.”
Data from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada from February 2017 to March 2022 on refugee claims made by irregular border crossers such as those who enter Canada through Roxham Road would appear to contradict Legault’s claim.
Of more than 63,000 claims, nearly 28,000 were accepted and 19,000 rejected while some 6,000 were abandoned or withdrawn. More than 11,000 claims are waiting to be heard.
But government statistics show that refugee claims made by individuals from the two largest source countries of irregular border crossers — Nigeria and Haiti — find their demands for protection from Canada rejected more often than they are accepted.
Marjorie Villefranche, Maison d’Haïti’s general manager, says Haitians are compelled to come to Canada not so much due to the widespread poverty in the country but because of the violence and insecurity in their native land.
“They say, ‘If I remain here, I will die. I will die with my children.’ What family would accept to stay and die?” she asked. “Anyone would try to do whatever they can to save their lives and to save the lives of their children.”
Villefranche says that it was “exaggerated” to claim that a wealthy country such as Canada could be overloaded by an influx of 20,000 or 30,000 refugee claimants, as the Quebec government claims.
“I think that, as a rich country it’s the least we can do to receive a certain number of refugees,” she says. “There are even poor countries that receive a million or two million refugees across their borders.”
Post-pandemic, Canada is nevertheless struggling to keep up with the flow of asylum seekers.
Upon arrival on Canadian soil, people undergo an initial interview where border agents record their identities, take fingerprints and make biometric recordings. Once their file is created, they are able to receive health care and social assistance.
But it is not until a more thorough admissibility investigation is conducted that a refugee claimant is eligible to receive a temporary work permit.
Dench, from the Canadian Council for Refugees, says a delay that was once limited to several days has now stretched to a months-long wait because officials conduct more extensive security checks that include the exchange of biometric data with other countries.
“They are so keen to exclude people from the refugee determination system that they make a system that is unworkable and starts accumulating these huge backlogs,” she says.
In response to the Star’s questions about delays, a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency said the time required to complete an eligibility check depends on the complexity of the case, the availability of information and the amount of research required.
Legault, the Quebec premier, put this delay at 14 months. Pascal, the Haitian asylum seeker who arrived in May, says he was told he would have to wait until March 2023 before he would receive an eligibility ruling — meaning he will not legally be able to work for 10 months.
Valois, the immigration lawyer, said the delay in receiving an admissibility hearing was “relatively new” and “really problematic.”
“The client wants to work. They want to get moving. They want to have a hearing. They want to be heard. The delay is not to their advantage.”
In an post-pandemic economy that is experiencing desperate labour shortages, the delay in approving work permits for people ready and willing to work is not to the country’s advantage either.
“It’s so ridiculous when you see that so many employers are wanting to employ people and yet the federal government is keeping people in this kind of limbo state because they can’t even get them through the first part of the process,” says Dench.
Another young Haitian couple arrived in Canada in April after a seven-month period in the U.S. during which they were held in detention and the man was forced to wear an ankle bracelet to track his movements.
He wants to find work as a driver, eventually. She said she would like to train to become a caregiver in a hospital — a line of work that, by some estimates, up to 2,000 asylum seekers in Quebec took up during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the needs were greatest.
The couple did not want to provide their names, nor would they discuss the reasons they had for seeking refugee protection from Canada.
But they were happy to share the details of their first Canadian victory — finding an apartment of their own that will allow them to finally leave the downtown Montreal shelter that they and hundreds of other refugee claimants call home.
It’s a studio apartment. It will cost them $850 a month, not including utilities. That will leave them less than $300 a month to eat, to support themselves as well as the baby boy due to enter the world this fall.
Allan Woods is a Montreal-based staff reporter for the Star. He covers global and national affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @WoodsAllan