For Haitians in U.S., the road to refuge runs straight to Canada — and arrest

The Canadian police officer at the border was adamant: If you cross here, you will immediately be arrested. The Haitian woman dragged her bulging suitcase across the dirt-covered mound to the Canadian side anyway.

She was determined. And so were the mother and her four teenage children who came after, and the Latino family of three after them, and the 39-year-old Haitian father of four who soon followed, his friends keeping a watchful eye in a waiting car as he jumped out of a taxi cab.

While U.S. President Donald Trump is clamping down on illegal immigration, thousands of migrants from Haiti, Central America and Africa are rushing to this border crossing in upstate New York, willing to face arrest in their pursuit of a better life. The popular stop near the border station at Lacolle, Quebec, is quickly becoming a path to a new life for immigrants — and something of a tourist attraction.

The migrant surge has overwhelmed Canadian officials who, after opening Olympic Stadium in Montreal to asylum seekers, this week reopened a shuttered hospital to accommodate the growing numbers and deployed the military to construct a tent city near the official border crossing at St. Bernard-de-Lacolle. By Saturday, 32 Army-green tents, each with the capacity to hold 16 people, had already been constructed, and soldiers planned to put up 13 more before day’s end for the refugees who have decided that getting arrested with an uncertain future in Canada is better than risking deportation under Trump.

On Saturday, Quebec’s Prime Minister Philippe Couillard, responding to the influx of refugees in his province, told the Canadian press that “it’s unfortunate” that asylum seekers have been led to believe that being admitted into Canada was “a done deal.” He and other officials stressed that despite the warm reception and treatment refugees have received, there is an immigration process and arriving migrants will have to demonstrate why they should not be returned to their home countries.

“We have the notion here people are being told, ‘Go to Canada, it’s welcoming. Just walk right in, the streets are paved gold and get a job,’” said Paul Clarke, the executive director of Action Réfugiés Montréal, which works with refugees seeking asylum in Canada. “But it’s not like that. People have to make a refugee claim. They have to state why they are being persecuted or fear persecution in their home country for their race, religion. The statistics in Canada for the last couple of years show that only 50 percent of Haitians meet that test. Only 50 percent are accepted as refugees in Canada. But we kind of get the sense that’s not what’s being told in the States.”

While the wave of Haitians crossing into Canada has been fueled by fears that the U.S. will send them back to Haiti early next year, when Haiti’s Temporary Protective Status is set to end, the community has been bombarded with misleading and false messages on WhatsApp, social media and Creole-language radio saying that Canada is offering free residency. In one message, a man claiming to be an attorney says the Canadian Consul in the United States is inviting “and even encourages all Haitians with or without TPS to apply for Canadian residency.”

And it’s not just Haitians who are hearing the messages.

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“I’ve been informed by so many people that Canada is more peaceful,” said Paris Adeyemi, 67, walking along Roxham Road in Champlain, New York, just south of the border, on Friday afternoon after deciding not to cross illegally into the country.

Adeyemi, who said his life was in danger back in Nigeria, flew from the African nation to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, then traveled to Champlain with his wife Agnes to ask for asylum. Once Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers informed the couple they would be committing an illegal act, they turned around.

“It’s safety that I want. It’s protection I want,’” Adeyemi said, as his wife dragged two large suitcases. “I told the taxi driver take me to the border — that’s all I said. I cannot go through an illegal border. I know what it means.”

But many are going anyway. More than 6,500 asylum-seekers have crossed into Quebec province since the beginning of the year, and most estimates say about half are Haitians.

“Right now, the question is how can the governments, the municipal, the provincial government of Quebec and federal in Ottawa manage this?” said Donald Cuccioletta, a historian and senior research associate at the Université du Québec à Montréal’s Raoul Dandurand Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies. “It’s approaching a crisis. How do we handle these people once they come across?”

The steady stream of Haitian migrants began in May when the Trump administration announced it was granting Haitians living in the United States only six months extension on their Temporary Protected Status — awarded after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti — which would mean the status would end in January. In July, when the 180-day countdown for January began, the flow of people picked up again.

But the migrant wave actually started in the winter with Trump’s decision to ban migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, Cuccioletta said. It prompted fearful Syrians living in the United States to flee into Canada, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a series of welcoming tweets, saying his nation would welcome “those fleeing persecution, terror and war.”

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Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau’s press secretary, said neither Trudeau’s tweets nor Canada’s welcoming stance toward refugees should be misinterpreted.

“Yes, Canada does remain an open and welcoming country for immigrants from around the world, but that doesn’t mean there is a free ticket into the country through the irregular crossings that are happening now,” Ahmad said.

There are significant protocols that must be applied to those seeking to come into Canada and reside there legally, Ahmad said, stressing that those arriving will be subjected to strict vetting. Right now, he said, the focus of the government is “dealing with the immediate situation on hand” and providing the necessary resources to immigration and the Canada Border Services Agency.

“We are continuing to monitor the situation,” Ahmad said.

Still, Cuccioletta said while Canadian law calls for the country to automatically accept refugees who cross the border illegally and put them through a process to determine whether they will be accepted, he believes that Trudeau’s position is his way of trying to make Canada opposite to the United States on the world stage.

“It’s a way for Mr. Trudeau and the Canadian population to sort of thumb their nose,” at Trump, Cuccioletta said. “Today, we have more strength to say, ‘Hey, we’re willing to back off from U.S. policy.’”

“Most people in Canada are anti-Trump,” Cuccioletta added. “I’m not saying there isn’t a Trump grouping of people who support him, but they are in the vast minority. So yeah, Mr. Trudeau felt that he as prime minister was able to do this and have the support of Canadian people.”

The steady stream of taxi cabs begin arriving shortly after dawn and go well into the night, an extraordinary exodus along a country road traversing large farms, grazing horses and wildflowers. It’s an idyllic last view of America for migrants like Jose Francois, who after spending a month in Boston after arriving from Haiti, decided anywhere was better than Haiti.

“The country doesn’t offer you anything,” said Francois, 39. “If things were good at home, everyone would remain.”

But to risk arrest and possibly deportation back to Haiti?

“Life is about taking chances,” he said.

As he proceeded to remove his oversized black duffle bag from the taxi’s trunk, his brother and friend looked on from a separate car. They hadn’t known what to expect, the men said, preferring to have Francois take a cab and they follow behind.

He walked a few paces to the overgrown crossing separating Canada and the United States. Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers warned that what he was about to do was illegal, and he would be arrested if he crossed.

He went anyway.

Marc Bien-Aime, the friend, said he understood why Francois, like many Haitians, had no future in his home country. “Haiti is a house on fire, ” Bien-Aime said. “Would you remain in a house that’s on fire?”

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