Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport in Canada, talks about the refugee crisis
Beads of sweat trickled down her forehead as Carole Wembert dragged one bulky black-and-red suitcase and toted two other bags, the load weighing heavy on both her mind and body as she approached the border crossing.
After 15 years in the United States, the Haitian immigrant had quit her job at Walmart in Fort Lauderdale. She packed up her four children, flew 1,200 miles to New York City, took a bus for seven hours and then a taxi before finally reaching the heavily forested spot on the U.S.-Canada border that has become a word-of-mouth entry point to a new life for immigrants.
The future in Canada was uncertain, but she was pretty sure what faced her in the United States: deportation.
“The president doesn’t want the immigrants to stay,” Wembert said.
She was repeating the widely held belief among some immigrant groups that President Donald Trump is closing the door to immigrants. Haitians in particular are worried because nearly 60,000 — including Wembert — have been living in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), the special humanitarian relief given to Haiti since its devastating 2010 earthquake left more than 300,000 dead.
The Trump administration has been increasingly signaling that it may end the status for Haitians in January. That’s fueling an unprecedented exodus of mostly Haitian migrants from the United States across a dirt and gravel-covered ditch in upstate New York to Canada.
More than 3,800 migrants have flowed into Quebec during the first two weeks of this month, Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman Claude Castonguay said during a press conference Thursday.
“We’ve never seen such numbers coming in,” Castonguay said.
In July, police arrested 2,984 near the same illegal crossing. In June, there were just 781 arrests.
Wembert said she needed to flee the U.S. to save her children. Three of the four were born in the United States and she says there are no prospects for her children in Haiti.
“I don’t want to go with my kids to my country,” Wembert said. “With what am I going to take care of them if I go back?”
“I felt that I had no other choice but to come here with my children,” she added.
As the illegal flow of Haitian migrants continues into Canada’s French-speaking Quebec province, many families like Wembert’s — with U.S.-born children — could face a painful dilemma, say immigration experts: what to do with their children if they are deported to Haiti.
To win an asylum claim in Canada, migrants will have to convince an independent immigration and refugee board that they would be at risk of persecution or even death if they returned to their homeland. Failure to prove it means deportation.
Despite being allowed to enter Canada, many Haitian immigrants aren’t granted asylum. “The success rate for last year, 2016, was 50 percent so you’re facing a very real risk of being refused,” said Richard Goldman, an immigration attorney with the Committee to Aid Refugees in Montreal. “It’s not an easy case to make especially if you’ve been living in the States for many years.”
Even if parents win asylum, their U.S.-born kids will be refused, Goldman said, because they would not be in danger in the U.S. The parents, however, can include the kids in their permanent residence applications so they can remain in Canada.
“They have to think, ‘Am I being threatened if I go back to Haiti and can I prove that?’ ” said Francine Dupuis, who oversees PRAIDA, a Quebec government-funded program that supports asylum seekers after their arrival. “If they are not in that situation, if they were only in the States because there was an earthquake and their country is poor, that is not enough to become a refugee. They have to think about that before they cross the border.”
Under a 2002 agreement between Canada and the United States, migrants must apply for refugee status in the first country they arrive in. A migrant crossing into Canada at a regular U.S. border point will be told to turn around and claim refugee status in the United States. But the treaty, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, only applies at land ports-of-entry where border guards can visually confirm that a migrant is entering one country directly from the other.
Over the years, asylum seekers have realized that if they can make it past the border at an illegal entry point, such as the Roxham Road crossing in upstate New York, where there are no border guards, they can request asylum from within Canada.
Castonguay said police and the Canada Border Services Agency are seeing “roughly about 250” crossings a day. As the number has grown, so too have the calls for a suspension of the treaty to close the loophole and shut off the flow.
No one is saying how many of the migrants are children and of those, how many are U.S. born. But Patrick Lefort, Canada Border Services Agency regional director general for Quebec, said Thursday that between 85 and 89 percent of the asylum seekers are Haitian.
Goldman says the question of U.S.-born children comes up frequently in all asylum cases. And while in the Haitian cases much depends on Haitian law — and whether Haiti is willing to accept the foreign-born children of its citizens — non-Haitian citizens cannot be forcefully deported to Haiti.
“They are definitely American citizens ... the parents have an option of having them returned to the States,” he said.
And unless the parents have someone to send their children to in the U.S., Goldman said, “the parents really face an impossible choice because it’s basically either bringing them to Haiti or sending them literally to ... a foster home.”
Coming to Canada for safe haven, he said, “is a very risky proposition.”
Stéphane Handfield, a Montreal attorney who represents a number of Haitian families who have recently crossed the border, said they’re often surprised when he explains the difficulty of trying to remain legally in Canada. Social media has spread false information that Canada has an open-door policy.
“A lot of my clients think that because they are in Canada, they just have to apply for residency status and that status will be granted and they will be able to stay in Canada for the rest of their lives,” he said. “This is not true. They will have to pass through a strict process. ... They will have to convince some board members that their life is still in danger today — 2017, in Haiti — not 10 years ago.”
By the time Wembert arrived at the border crossing on Roxham Road in Champlain, New York, near Saint Bernard-de-Lacolle, Canada, shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday, scores of migrants had already arrived under cover of darkness and were sitting in the white tents that constitute the makeshift reception area.
As her children waited for her to join them on the dirt path that leads to the Canadian side — and into the arms of police, who warn all migrants attempting to illegally cross that they face immediate arrest — 12-year-old daughter Sabine, wearing a pullover sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers and carrying a purple backpack, focused on the new adventures that might lie ahead. She wanted to experience cold weather.
“I like snow,” she said. “I like going to a place that’s cold.”
But most of all, she said, her voice turning more serious, they would find “a better life” in Canada.
Several mothers, some pushing strollers and others ushering older children while pulling oversized suitcases, passed her. They listened to the police warning and walked on, traversing the few feet into Canada.
The parents really face an impossible choice because it’s basically either bringing them to Haiti or sending them literally to ... a foster home.
Richard Goldman, a Canadian immigration attorney
In French, police read them their rights. Then they were searched and screened for criminal records. Eventually, they would be bused about five miles to the newly constructed tent city near the official Lacolle port of entry. They can remain there for up to four days while border agents process them before they are transferred to one of 10 shelters, including the mammoth Olympic Stadium, in Montreal. On Thursday, as many as 1,200 waited in tents to be processed, said Lefort of Border Services.
Panic started to hit Wembert’s household last month after a form letter arrived from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reminding Wembert that her temporary status in the country extended only until January. If TPS is not renewed by the U.S. government, the letter said, Wembert should prepare to return to Haiti. The letter was sent to every one of the United States’ 58,000 Haitian TPS holders who renewed their status.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration said post-earthquake conditions in Haiti have improved to the point that it “may not warrant further TPS extension past January 2018,” though a final decision has not yet been made.
That wasn’t enough to give Wembert hope.
“My kids’ father died, too, this year,” she said. “ My mother and sister died during the earthquake. ... I don’t have anything in my hands to take care of them.”
Wembert said she decided to come to Canada “because I see they want to help us.”
On Sunday, as dozens of additional tents built by the Canadian military went up near the border, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau toured the grounds. Thanking soldiers and border agents, he reiterated that migrants shouldn’t misinterpret the hospitality being shown to them by the Canadian government.
“There are very clear protocols that are in place that have to be followed as well as the criteria that will determine whether or not we accept asylum seekers. Those are in place and those are very clearly being implemented here in the weeks and months to come,” Garneau said.
Still, some feel that the migrant surge is testing Canada’s welcome, and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who earlier this year announced on Twitter that Canada will take refugees banned by Trump, has fostered a lax government response. Critics argue that the government is encouraging migrants — not just from Haiti but also from Colombia, Mexico, Africa and the Middle East — to take advantage.
“The folks coming across the border are asylum shopping,” said Carlo Dade, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies. “Their first choice, the U.S., didn’t work out so now they’re trying Canada. Relatives are feeding them the lines to give to immigration and the immigration consultants and lawyers are queuing up to cash in. There is no human rights case with these folks. Haiti today is not the Haiti of a decade ago, let alone two decades ago, and it’s not Syria or Venezuela.”
Ricky Caya, a resident of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec, thinks the government has taken its “open and welcoming” immigration policy too far. A postal worker who lives 40 minutes from the border, he had driven across to Champlain to buy cheaper gas Sunday and decided to check out the Roxham Road crossing.
As he watched several migrants file into the reception center operated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Caya, 42, said, “Everyone in the world is going to see this and say, ‘OK, I’ve got a free ticket to Canada.’
“Most of the Canadian people want to help, are willing to help — but people who need help. People that can’t afford food here are not supposed to help people who come in with iPads and gold chains,” he said.
The fear of Trump ending TPS for Haiti has others scared, too. More than 300,00 people from nine other countries, including Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, also have been granted the special immigration status. Some Canadians are now wondering whether those groups will start showing up at the border.
“They are fleeing the United States because of Donald Trump’s supposed politics, but I don’t think there is any danger to their lives here in America,” Caya said.
For Carole Wembert, walking across the border was deceptively easy. Then she realized that one of her children had left a suitcase behind.
The large gray bag stood in the middle of the road, steps from where she stood on the Canadian side. Wembert pointed and asked a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer if she could run back and grab it.
He shook his head and told her: You can’t go back to the U.S.