River of Refugees: Migrants Walk Into Canada Fearing Deportation From U.S.

Canada-US border at Roxham Road near Champlain, New York. Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police staff this unofficial crossing 24 hours a day. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

NPR Transcript

NEW YORK, NY—Washington has ended a temporary residency program for almost 60,000 Haitians allowed to legally enter the United States following an earthquake in 2010. The program is called Temporary Protected Status (TPS). It allows people from nations hit by conflict or natural disaster to remain legally but temporarily in the US for up to 18 months. TPS has often been extended so that some people have remained legally in the US for several years.

The decision to terminate TPS for Haitians mandates a deadline to leave the US by mid-2019. 5400 Haitians are currently living legally in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed his dismay over the decision noting that Haitians have long been “making our city better.”

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Dr Jay Helias, a physician, was visiting the US when a 7-magnitude earthquake tore into Haiti. Helias was permitted to stay under TPS. She  continued her career in New York.

A man from Haiti scurries past Canadian police officers after crossing into Canada at night. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

“When they said they were ending TPS, I felt crushed,” she said.” It was never in my mind that that they would put you in a situation of being deported. Because there were other countries under TPS for many years, I really didn’t think that it was going to be something that will stop abruptly.”

Starting in May, there were signals that TPS was being reconsidered, signals strong enough that people started considering the option of trying to enter Canada before TPS was cancelled.

Since the announcement, calls from across the eastern seaboard, from Haitian communities from Miami to Boston, have come into the Brooklyn office of Haitian-born New York City Council Member Mathieu Eugene. The office arranges legal aid for constituents. The volume of calls has picked up since TPS was terminated. One of Eugene’s aides, Vladimir Edouard, says Haitians across the eastern seaboard want information.

As of October 2017, UN peacekeepers have withdrawn from Haiti. They were there to stabilize the country, the western hemisphere’s poorest nation. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

“What they’re scared of is, they don’t want to stay here and get kicked out. Canada is giving them an opportunity,” Edouard said.

The net result is a continued flow of people crossing the border into Canada by foot. They are taking advantage of a footnote in a Canada-US treaty that says those who cross on foot will not be turned back from Canada until their case is heard.

A spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said crossings take place on daily basis. Many of those people crossing, like Thomas from Haiti, said they are afraid to share their last name. Thomas stated that Haiti hasn’t nearly recovered from the earthquake. The country is also plagued by large-scale floods, the most recent in November. “I almost lose my life,” he said. “So I look for a place to go,” he continued.

More than 9000 people seeking refugee status in Canada entered the province of Québec between August and October 31. (2017). By comparison, just over 2400 crossed by foot along the entire US border with Canada the previous year.

A man from Congo speaks with RCMP officers after illegally entering Canada on foot. By avoiding a legal crossing where he would be sent back to the US, the man is allowed to remain in Canada until his immigration status is decided. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

People are crossing here because of legal paradox known as the Safe Third Country Agreement. It’s a treaty with the U.S. that says if you make a claim for refugee status at a legal border crossing into Canada, you’ll be sent back because the US is considered safe for refugees. But if you cross into Canada illegally, the treaty doesn’t apply and you can remain in Canada while your case is decided, a process that can take years.

There are calls in Canada to cancel the agreement. More than 200 lawyers along with law students have been gathering evidence to mount a legal case against it. Amnesty International has also called for an end to the treaty.

“I think we are all shocked by the numbers,” said Eric Taillefer, a member of the Québec Association of Immigration Lawyers.

In his office in Montréal, Taillefer said allowing refugees to apply at a legal crossing would allow Canada to focus more on security, because presumably someone with, for example, links terrorism would not consider a legal crossing.

“Then if you cross in somewhere else, we could ask the question. ‘Why did you cross this way? Are you a security risk?”

On the New York-Québec border, a man from Burundi told another RCMP officer that he cannot return to the African nation. “They going to kill us over there,” he said in a voice raised so that the officer could hear him clearly through a howling wind.


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