At a bus station far from the improvised U.S.-Canada border checkpoint on Roxham Road, with its television and surveillance cameras, motion detectors, searchlight glare and 24-hour RCMP presence, a Haitian national stumbles off a Greyhound and introduces himself as Laugan.
The 3:20 p.m. bus is bound from New York to Montreal – the final destination Laugan hopes to reach – but he gets off 36 kilometres short of the border at Plattsburgh in upstate New York. Laugan, like hundreds of other people this year, has decided the United States is no longer hospitable to his long-term immigration status and has headed toward the vast, porous frontier.
“I’m going to the border,” Laugan says. “I had trouble in my country and, now where I’ve been living in New York, I’m having trouble because of Trump.”
Official government numbers show a surge of people travelling from the United States to make asylum claims in Canada since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States pledging an immigration crackdown.
In Quebec alone, the number has risen from 42 in January, 2015, to 452 last month. In 2016, there were 2,537 claims at unauthorized entry points in Quebec, up from 1,054 in 2015.
A smaller spike has emerged in Manitoba where dozens of asylum seekers – mainly Minnesota residents of Somali origin – have braved long hikes across frozen fields, during which some have suffered frostbite.
Migrants from Nigeria, Colombia, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and parts of Eastern Europe have made their way to Quebec in recent weeks. They use unofficial crossings because, under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, migrants who have landed in either country are automatically turned away from seeking refuge in the other at official entry points. Once they set foot across the border at unauthorized crossings, they have the right to make a claim.
There’s no law to stop a person legally in the United States from leaving the country. On the Canadian side, it’s illegal to make an unauthorized entry but there is nothing Canadian police can do to stop a person from stepping over the boundary into arrest.
On the weekend, Conservative MPs Michelle Rempel and Tony Clement called on the government to reinforce Canadian border security. The RCMP and Canadian Border Security Agency have boosted patrols and are enforcing the law, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement Monday. “At the same time, people seeking asylum in our country must be treated with compassion,” the statement said.
A day along an eight-kilometre stretch of the 813-kilometre line between Quebec and New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine showed stopping unauthorized border crossing would be a monumental task.
In the predawn hours, the first two migrants emerged from the forest behind the RCMP checkpoint at Roxham Road. They were quickly handcuffed and taken into custody. A couple of hours later, two more people made a simpler crossing on the five-metre path across a ditch. The crossing was quiet for the rest of the day.
To the south in Plattsburgh, Laugan struggled to pull a heavy suitcase out of the Greyhound bus. He appeared to be in his 30s and was travelling alone. He was relieved to encounter a Canadian reporter who spoke French but was in a hurry to hop in a cab and head north. Nervous and stammering, he recounted how he’s been in the United States for five months.
The Greyhound bus driver, who was also of Haitian origin, helped Laugan load a heavy suitcase into a cab and negotiate the fare. Some drivers have reportedly charged $200 (U.S.) or more for the 20-minute drive to the border.
“At first, the cab driver asked $50 but I got him down to $40,” the Greyhound man said with a grin.
Back at Roxham Road, Laugan never arrived, but that was no big surprise. Within a few kilometres of this stop, at least three other dead-end roads and a couple of open fields offer easy places to hop the border. After nightfall, at an abandoned crossing on Meridian Road past some of the stately old brick houses of Champlain, N.Y., a reporter toed the border line at an easy-to-hop gate designed more to keep out cattle than people.
The orange glow of the official and modern massive border crossing at La Colle, Que., was just down the slope. One step and he would be illegally back in Canada.
After five minutes spent looking for signs Laugan might have crossed here, the reporter headed south in a rental car to a Dunkin’ Donuts eight kilometres from the border. An unmarked U.S. Border Patrol truck caught up. There were no signs of authorities on either side during the reporter’s border inspection but it was caught on camera.
In the parking lot, reporter and patroller exchanged a few polite words about their purpose. “Just had to check,” the patroller said. He did not say if he had caught Laugan on video.Report Typo/Error