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A Taxi Driver's Mission To Help Refugees Reach The Canadian Border

Victor Pizarro runs a taxi company in Plattsburgh, N.Y., about 20 miles from the Canadian border. Since January, several people have asked to be driven to a road near the border.
Ashley Cleek for NPR
Victor Pizarro runs a taxi company in Plattsburgh, N.Y., about 20 miles from the Canadian border. Since January, several people have asked to be driven to a road near the border.

Victor Pizarro, who runs a cab company in Plattsburgh, N.Y., started noticing something unusual in January, around the time of President Trump's inauguration.

People who didn't speak English were getting off at the bus station in the city, located about 20 miles from the Canadian border, and handing his drivers a piece of paper that read, "Take me to Roxham Road. How much?"

Pizarro had never heard of Roxham Road. It's a narrow street that dead-ends in a ditch marking the border between the U.S. and Canada.

"We didn't have a full understanding of what was going on nationally that would affect our small community here," he says. "So ... we weren't prepared for it."

In the first two months of this year, Canada reported that more than 2,000 people crossed from the U.S., seeking asylum. People with valid U.S. visas are able to cross at official checkpoints, but those without documentation have to find another way.

When he drove to the border, Pizarro contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection and gave them the taxi's GPS tracking information, so Border Patrol agents could meet the cab and check his passengers' papers.

"Each time we'll get pulled over, the people get pulled out of the car, and sometimes they got arrested," he says. "Sometimes Border Patrol said, 'We're not there; don't worry about it. Just take them.' "

Mike Estrella, an operations officer with the Border Patrol, said the opposite in an interview. He said the agency has no protocol with taxicab companies.

Then, one day, everything changed. Pizarro says he picked up a mother and son. The mom was Haitian, and the son was American and around 15 years old. They asked Pizarro to drive them to the border. He asked if their paperwork was in order, and the son said it was.

So Pizarro stopped near the border, and border agents came up to the taxi and asked the passengers for their passports. He says the agents told the women to step out of the car. Her visa had expired.

He looked in the rearview mirror at the son.

"And tears are just rolling, rolling, rolling down his face," Pizarro says. "I mean, there is nothing I can do because I have — I'm just driving."

Pizarro got out and asked the agents what was going to happen to the mother and son. He says they told him that she would be detained and likely deported. The kid, they said, would be sent to foster care.

Pizarro says he felt like his heart had stopped.

"I mean, as a kid, I was taken away from my family, so it — it sort of hit me in a place that — it bothered me," he says. "It bothered me to a point, because when I looked in his eyes, I seen a reflection of myself. It brought me back to a feeling that I thought was gone. And I was like no, no, no, no."

No more, he decided. Pizarro called his drivers to an emergency meeting. He told them there would be a change of plans. From now on, he said, the goal is to make sure people get to the border safely. So if passengers don't have valid visas, Pizarro tries to make sure Canadian officials are waiting at the end of Roxham Road.

"But as far as ripping families apart, we're not in that business anymore," he says. "It happened once, and that's it. It won't happen again with us."

Estrella, the Border Patrol officer, said he couldn't comment on this specific incident, but he stressed the agency is "not trying to separate families by any means."

Recently, Pizarro has made some changes to his office, too. He transformed part of it into a waiting area. There's a comfortable leather sofa, a small table and chairs so people waiting to go to the border have a place to relax or maybe take a nap.

Pizarro says most passengers tell him they are seeking asylum in Canada because of how Trump has targeted immigrants and Muslims. Pizarro says that before all this, he had never taken a position on immigration.

"I get the fact that these people ... they've overstayed their visas," he says. "I don't know what side of the fence that I actually fall on on this issue. I just know that when they come here, and they call us, then our job is to get them from Point A to Point B safely, and we're going to do that."

At 1 a.m. one night, Pizarro waits in his taxi as a bus pulls in from New York City. The bus driver walks over and asks Pizarro if he can take someone to the border.

"OK, we'll take them," Pizarro says. "Let me go help these guys with their luggage."

Amal and her three sons walk toward the Canadian border.
/ Ashley Cleek for NPR
Ashley Cleek for NPR
Amal and her three sons walk toward the Canadian border.

A woman in a turquoise headscarf steps off the bus with three young boys. They drag eight massive suitcases and three overstuffed bags from the bus to the curb. They're Palestinian, from Gaza.

The woman gives only her first name, Amal, and says her sons are 15, 14 and 8. They got on a train two days ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala. They're exhausted.

She asks Pizarro to take her to the border.

She wants to seek refuge in Canada. She and her sons have valid U.S. visas, so Pizarro calls U.S. border agents, who tell him to drop the family near the duty-free store about a quarter-mile from the official border crossing.

It's windy and just above freezing. Pizarro pulls their luggage out of the trunk and points to where they can walk.

The three boys each grab a suitcase and run backward toward the border.

It's 2:30 a.m. by the time Pizarro starts back to Plattsburgh. He drives to the bus station to see if anyone getting off the 3 a.m. bus needs a ride to the border.

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Ashley Cleek