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One Small Street In New York Funnels Migrants From The U.S. Into Canada


A nondescript country lane in upstate New York has become one of the most popular routes for asylum-seekers trying to get into Canada. But many face steep legal hurdles if they make it to the other side of the northern border. Emma Jacobs reports on a new legal battle over immigration in Canada.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: It's after dark when a taxi drives past bungalows and horse pastures to where rocks and road dead ends at the Quebec border. The woman who gets out is originally from Haiti.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: A Canadian police officer introduces himself from across a strip of gravel.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: "This is not an official crossing point," he says. "If she proceeds to Canada here, she will be arrested."

The woman crosses anyway. She's been living in Philadelphia with her three young boys and wants to ask for asylum in Canada, but she can't apply at an official border crossing because of a longstanding agreement between the U.S. and Canada. Wendy Ayotte, a Canadian volunteer, has watched asylum seekers from all over the world across this way.

WENDY AYOTTE: I think if I were in their shoes crossing into the unknown, being arrested and all of that, I would want somebody to be a friendly face, you know?

JACOBS: Ayotte has been coming here Sunday afternoons for more than two years now to hand out hats and gloves and to wish the newcomers good luck.

AYOTTE: Bon courage.

JACOBS: Before President Trump's election, Ayotte says, migrants crossed here infrequently. Since 2017, more than 40,000 people have walked across the border here. According to a University of Toronto survey, nearly half of these migrants had been living in the U.S. but left because they feared deportation under the Trump administration. The rest were fleeing their native countries and believed they had a better chance of getting asylum in Canada than in the U.S. All of them ended up here at this dead-end road in upstate New York.

AYOTTE: It was really awkward 'cause it went down into a bit of a ditch. And there was walks. And, you know, people were trying to drive their suitcases over (laughter).

JACOBS: Ayotte says, eventually, Canadian authorities filled the ditch with gravel. There have been other changes, too. A corrugated metal building went up last spring. Officers now staff that building full time to search and process people, says Cpl. Charles Poirier of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

CHARLES POIRIER: There has been a continuous flow of people crossing, and that's why we're still there.

JACOBS: Many asylum seekers are here because of the Safe Third Country Agreement that the U.S. and Canada signed in 2002. It was designed to prevent what's known as asylum shopping by requiring migrants to apply in whichever country they arrived in first, but it only applies at official border crossings. David Gervais is an immigration attorney in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

DAVID GERVAIS: I've seen people, whole families get turned around on the Canadian side. And they get arrested on the way back.

JACOBS: These migrants may have been living in the U.S. illegally and were seeking protection in Canada, and now they're arrested by American border officers for not having papers. Gervais remembers a recent case.

GERVAIS: They arrested dad. They didn't arrest mom because they had young kids with them. But dad was arrested. And he was eventually sent to the Federal Detention Center in Batavia, N.Y. And he was held there for deportation proceedings.

JACOBS: Canadian immigration advocates are upset about these long detentions. They've sued to overturn the Safe Third Country Agreement. They argued before a Toronto federal court in November that the U.S. is not safe for asylum seekers and denies asylum to migrants who would be protected in Canada. The Canadian government pointed out the U.S. does accept tens of thousands of asylum seekers each year. A ruling could take several months. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emma Jacobs
[Copyright 2024 NPR]