A few minutes before midnight, RCMP officers climbed on concrete blocks to uncover a sign that read: “Stop. Do not cross. It is illegal to enter Canada from here. You will be arrested and may be returned to the United States.”
The new sign at Roxham Road, an unofficial border crossing where thousands of migrants have been entering Quebec from New York State, went up hours after the two countries amended the Safe Third Country Agreement on Friday in an effort to stop the influx of asylum seekers.
By Saturday afternoon, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) had turned away one claimant, said Audrey Champoux, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office.
Migrants from Afghanistan, Turkey, Venezuela, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Haiti, Botswana, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others rushed to cross into Canada before the new policy took effect after midnight. There were at most two dozen migrants waiting outside to be processed at any given time that Friday night, trying to stay warm as the temperature dropped below zero.
Murtaza Rezaei arrived at the crossing with his three sisters just after 11 p.m. He said they left Afghanistan because life under the Taliban regime was impossible.
“There’s no more life,” the 30-year-old said, explaining they could not go out, work, or go to school. “Why would I stay there? I live once.”
Mr. Rezaei learned of the looming border policy change on Thursday and immediately decided to head for the Canadian border. “I need to go,” he said before turning to face an RCMP officer.
Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, signed in 2002, asylum seekers crossing into either Canada or the United States at formal border crossings were turned back and told to apply for asylum in the first “safe” country they arrived in. With the revised deal, anyone who crosses into either country anywhere along the land border and who applies for asylum within 14 days will be turned back.
Taxi drivers from Plattsburgh, N.Y., but also New York City and New Jersey were coming and going at regular intervals, throwing luggage and last words of encouragement at their passengers. “Follow your dreams,” one shouted as he drove back.
At Plattsburgh’s Mountain Mart convenience store, where many migrants come off Greyhound buses from New York, cab drivers waited for what might be their last few clients to the border on Friday afternoon.
Tommy, an MM Taxi driver who declined to provide his last name, said he did not mind the loss of business because he will be able to retire with social security benefits. “I’m more concerned about the people that’s coming off the bus after midnight. What are they going to do?” he asked.
Not everybody knew of the new rules, which went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday.
Carlos Perez travelled from Colombia with his family, saying he wanted a better life for his kids after they faced threats at home. As he stepped out of his cab, tears filled his eyes upon learning they might be among the last asylum seekers to cross into Canada via Roxham Road before it closed. “Thank you,” he said, looking up.
The news of the closure also brought onlookers. Samuel Perreault drove from Quebec City with a friend to see what Roxham Road looked like and take selfies in front of the RCMP compound. “We were curious to know if many people would rush to the border before the closing, but it looks pretty quiet,” he said.
The new policy’s effects were not immediately obvious early Saturday.
While RCMP officers unveiled the new sign Friday night, headlights appeared in the distance. A group of six migrants, including two small children, exited an SUV a few minutes after what was to be the closing of Roxham Road, running with their luggage.
“You don’t have the right to enter here, it’s illegal,” barked an RCMP officer, as he did with every other migrant in the preceding hours. “If you cross here, I will have to put you under arrest, do you understand?” the officer asked. They crossed anyway.
In response to questions about enforcement, Ms. Champoux said CBSA “will co-ordinate with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to ensure safe return of those being removed, including arranging for transportation as required.”
A little before 1 a.m., a 30-year-old man from Pakistan, who did not want to be identified, said he had taken a taxi from New York City after learning about the policy change. “The cab driver didn’t know the roads very well, that’s why I am a bit late,” he explained. He said there were “a lot of troubles” in Pakistan and he came to Canada to find a safe home. He crossed.
The policy change is aimed at promoting orderly migration and easing pressure on communities overwhelmed by a spike in asylum seekers, but enforcing it by apprehending people who cross anywhere along the land border could be a logistical nightmare and put people at risk, experts and advocates said.
Hélène Gravel, who lives on the Canadian side of Roxham Road, near the border, does not expect things to change much for now. “People will still try to come,” she said, noting she has seen people trying to cross from Canada into the US through her land before. “I suppose they will now do the same this way.”
With a report from Reuters.