Skip to main content

Some have reacted with bemusement to word that Canadian politicians want to make it harder for migrants to enter by shutting down the irregular border crossing south of Montreal

Open this photo in gallery:

This migrant camp in Reynosa, in Mexico's Tamaulipas state, is home to many Haitians who hope to reach Canada or the United States.Photography by Verónica G. Cárdenas/The Globe and Mail

Standing outside a migrant shelter near Mexico’s border with the U.S., Smyder Mesidor recounted a 10-country odyssey to get here. Driven out of Haiti by gang violence and Chile by a lack of work, the 30-year-old cook had been robbed by bandits and shaken down by customs officials as he walked across much of Latin America.

This road would end, he hoped, in either Florida or Quebec, both places where he has family.

So he reacted with a mix of bemusement and insouciance to word that Canadian politicians want to make it harder for migrants to enter by shutting down Roxham Road, the irregular border crossing south of Montreal.

Bemusement because such rhetoric seemed to clash with Canada’s immigrant-friendly image. Insouciance because, after what he’d been through, he was ready to brave the vagaries of the immigration system in a country that held out the hope of a better life.

“I don’t listen to that sort of talk,” Mr. Mesidor said. “Everyone speaks well of Canada.”

Among the thousands of Haitian migrants gathered here in Reynosa, a city of 700,000 across the Rio Bravo from Texas, there is persistent interest in reaching Canada, usually as a backup option if it proves too difficult to stay in the U.S. There is an even more persistent disregard for attempts by either country to stop people from coming. Given the brutality and lack of economic opportunity back home, they don’t feel they have much choice but to push forward.

“We’re a little bit upset when we hear politicians say those things, because we don’t have a voice. We want to come and help them build their country,” said Kency Etienne, a 30-year-old teacher living in an encampment of several dozen tents on a concrete pad next to a Mexican government office. “But we don’t really think about it.”

Sitting nearby were Jean and Marie Petilme, who made the trek with their four children. Ms. Petilme is eight-months pregnant with a fifth. Hiking through Panama’s Darien jungle, Mr. Petilme said some migrants with them had their clothes stolen at gunpoint, others were swept away while fording a river and a few starved to death. Life hasn’t been much better in Mexico.

“We’ve been here for three months and we don’t get much to eat. We don’t have phones to fill out asylum applications,” said their daughter Miscalina, 12. “This is how we live.”

Mireille Joseph, 32, also travelled pregnant, including a five-day stretch on foot. She left her husband and two children behind in Haiti. Her hope is to get to safety and then work on having them join her. “I don’t really care at all what the politicians say. I want to come to either Canada or the U.S.,” she said.

Mireille Joseph made the journey to Mexico while pregnant. She has a husband and two children still in Haiti.
Migrants on Reynosa’s international bridge wait for their immigration appointments on the U.S. side.
Open this photo in gallery:

The Petilme family – Miscalina, 12, Loubencly, 14, parents Marie and Jean, 44 and 46, Erlande, 16, and Olandy, 17 – have been here for three months after a dangerous trek through Central America.

The lifting of pandemic border restrictions, along with deteriorating economic and security conditions in Haiti and parts of Latin America, have driven a rise in northward migration this past year. In Haiti, armed gangs have tightened their control of the country, carrying out frequent kidnappings for ransom and blocking access to Port-au-Prince’s shipping terminals. The capital has suffered repeated shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

Under the Canada-United States Safe Third Country Agreement, migrants arriving in Canada from the U.S. are prohibited from making Canadian asylum claims, allowing for their swift deportation. But the rule only applies at official points of entry, leading asylum seekers to enter the country at irregular border crossings. The vast majority do so at Roxham Road near Plattsburgh, N.Y., because of its relative accessibility.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement to apply to the entire border. The White House, however, has shown little interest in changing the status quo. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been busing migrants from his state to northern cities such as New York, where Mayor Eric Adams has sent many of them on to the Canadian border.

The influx has led Quebec Premier François Legault and federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to ramp up pressure on Mr. Trudeau to stem the tide. “We as a country can close that border crossing. If we are a real country, we have borders,” Mr. Poilievre said last month.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr. Legault said that the province’s social services could not handle any more asylum seekers. He also warned that the new arrivals, who predominantly speak Haitian Creole or Spanish, would contribute to “the decline of French in Montreal.”

The number of people who made refugee claims after crossing at Roxham Road last year – almost 40,000 – is high by the standards of Canada, used to being geographically insulated from migration. In Mexico, it seems modest, a fraction of the more than 200,000 who tried to cross into the U.S. in December alone.

Migrants look out at the Rio Grande, which separates Mexico from Texas. Agents patrol the river on a Texas Game Warden boat.
Open this photo in gallery:

Migrants buy and sell food in Reynosa. Necessities of life can be hard to come by for the people living in the crowded shelters.

In Reynosa, the shelters are full, leaving many to live on the streets, in parks and in vacant lots. Hot, dusty and perpetually sunny even in late winter, the city feels a world away from the snow-covered forest surrounding Roxham Road. At one intersection near a large encampment, a dozen small businesses have sprung up under tarps strung between trees, with everyone from barbers to fruit sellers providing services to the migrants.

Over a charcoal fire, 19-year-old Natalie Joseph helped prepare gorditas. She has spent much of her life on the move: She left Haiti at the age of 5, she said, with her family settling in Chile. Two years ago, worried about her prospects for finding work, she decided to hit the road with two friends. “You can get the basic necessities in Chile but we wanted something better,” she said.

Across the street, Maricianne Pierre said she had been waiting in Reynosa 2½ months. “I’d love to go to Canada. There are possibilities of school, social programs, work. I’m stuck here right now,” said Ms. Pierre, 40.

Maricianne Pierre, eight months pregnant, waits with her belongings outside the Senda de Vida shelter in Reynosa.
Pastor Hector Silva, who runs Senda de Vida, says the migrants are not just looking for a better life, and that is not a crime.

Hector Silva, a pastor who runs two shelters in the city, said he wasn’t sure what to tell people who were setting their sights north. He only hoped that the leaders of wealthy countries wouldn’t shut anyone out.

“We have a lot of people asking, ‘How can we do it – if we get the paper from the U.S., how do we get all the way to Canada?’ We don’t know,” he said as a U.S. Border Patrol chopper buzzed overhead. “They’re not criminals. Many people are running for their lives. Leaving the country looking for a better life is not against the law.”

At another shelter a few blocks away, Ricot Picot and his wife watched their two small children play. Mr. Picot, 42, who was a teacher in Haiti, said everyone would be better off if the people with power to decide immigration policy allowed them to complete their journey. “I pray for them,” he said. “We don’t have anything – no jobs, no support. We are not achieving anything staying here.”

Roxham Road and beyond: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel podcast

Why have so many asylum seekers entered Canada through Roxham Road, and how has a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement make that possible? Columnist Konrad Yakabuski explains. Subscribe for more episodes.

In depth

Asylum seekers face a long journey to freedom along Roxham Road

Asylum seekers in Niagara Falls see strife as tourist season nears

Legault asks Trudeau to press U.S. on Roxham Road

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe