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Migrants cross after midnight into Canada at Roxham Road on March 25.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Like thousands before them, Jose Mendoza, 27, and Juliana Torres, 21, arrived in Plattsburgh, N.Y., with few possessions and great hope of making it into Canada to start a new life.

News of a policy change that allowed Canada to turn away asylum seekers attempting to enter the country through unofficial border crossings like Roxham Road, between New York State and Quebec, did not deter the couple or dash their hope. They said they would try to cross anyway.

“I don’t have anywhere to go back to,” Mr. Mendoza said in Spanish, as he carried a small white suitcase.

Mr. Mendoza said he and his partner fled persecution in their home country of Venezuela, after protesting against the regime of President Nicolas Maduro, considered a dictator by many Western governments, including Canada’s.

They were among a small group of asylum seekers who got off a Greyhound bus at Plattsburgh’s Mountain Mart convenience store Sunday afternoon, less than 48 hours after the amended Canada-U. S. Safe Third Country Agreement took effect.

Under the agreement, that was signed in 2002 and came into effect in December, 2004, 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, which took effect at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, anyone who crosses into either country anywhere along the land border and who applies for asylum within 14 days will be turned back.

U.S., Canada kept Roxham Road deal a secret to avoid rush at the border

By noon on Sunday, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said “six cases have been processed; two claimants have been returned to the U.S. in accordance with the Safe Third Country Agreement ... and four were deemed eligible to make an asylum claim in Canada.” There are four types of exemptions to the agreement, including for unaccompanied minors and for people who have family members who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Hours before the new policy took effect Friday night, asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Turkey, Venezuela, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Haiti, Botswana, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and others rushed to cross into Canada at Roxham Road, 50 kilometres south of Montreal.

Taxi drivers from Plattsburgh, but also New York and New Jersey, were coming and going at regular intervals, hurriedly unloading luggage and sharing last words of encouragement with their passengers. “Follow your dreams,” one shouted as he drove away.

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.

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Pamela Memengi Maiala, a woman who stated that she was from Congo, comforts her son before crossing into Canada at Roxham Road on March 24.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI

“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 said he learned of the looming border policy change from media reports on Thursday and immediately decided to head for the Canadian border.

Others, who arrived a few minutes or hours too late on Saturday, learned upon arrival they might have made the trip for nothing.

The RCMP put up a new sign at midnight on Friday that warned those who crossed the border that they “may be returned to the United States.” But other than the revised signage, there were no outward indications that new rules had come into effect. An RCMP officer at the site continued to repeat the same message he had been telling every other asylum seeker in the preceding hours.

“You don’t have the right to enter here, it’s illegal,” the officer barked to a group that arrived a few minutes after midnight. “If you cross here, I will have to put you under arrest. Do you understand?” the officer asked. They crossed anyway.

Jhon Nunez and Roque Bastos, both from Colombia, were at the Mountain Mart on Sunday trying to find a taxi to take them to the border. They fled threats from armed groups, including the National Liberation Army, they said, and want to provide a safe home for their families in Canada.

Mr. Nunez, 24, understands they might be turned back to the U.S., but “in our situation, we prefer to take the risk,” he said in Spanish. He and Mr. Bastos, 34, said they faced racism in the U.S. and had trouble getting documents, forcing them to take low-paying informal jobs in gardening or construction. “We still want to cross, because we’re not well in the U.S.,” Mr. Nunez said.

A man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo said that he learned of the policy change on the bus. As he got off the Greyhound on Sunday, he said in French that he still hoped to cross the border, adding that he had come a long way to get there.

There were still taxi drivers came to meet asylum seekers at the Mountain Mart this weekend, although fewer than in the days before. One cabbie said that people were still eager to get to Roxham Road. He said he told them that there was a 50/50 chance they would make it into Canada, adding that he wouldn’t feel right about lying to them.

Roxham Road was quiet on Sunday. No one but a few reporters stood on the Canadian side, doing televised hits beside the compound where tens of thousands of asylum seekers were processed in the past few months.

The policy change, announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday, 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.

In response to questions about enforcement, Audrey Champoux, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office, said the 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.”

Hélène Gravel, who lives on the Canadian side of Roxham Road, near the border, said she 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 U.S. through her land before. “I suppose they will now do the same this way.”

The Globe and Mail tried on Sunday to contact Mr. Nunez and Mr. Bastos to get an update on their situations but did not hear back from either of them.