Cross-Border Blues: Asylum Seekers Leaving the U.S. for Canada


Since the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, the world has been captivated by the whirlwind of chaotic circumstances and consequences surrounding him. Yet, the Trump administration’s policies, even its domestic ones, have not only affected America. They have had real consequences outside America’s borders, creating domestic policy challenges for its neighbours on top of pre-existing international ones. There have been changes to policy on who can travel to the United States, threats to the rights granted to undocumented immigrants through programs such as DACA, and non-renewal of policies that allow residents of war or disaster-torn countries to live and work in the States. These changes are not just an American story, as they have displaced people and built a climate of fear that crosses borders. Although these troubles have always been associated with the southern American border, they now exist on the Canadian as well.

Of these consequences, one in particular has captured the minds of Canadians and slid into the country’s domestic discourse. This trend is that of individuals, specifically undocumented immigrants and foreign nationals who had been residing in the States, entering Canada illegally in the hopes of gaining asylum. These migrants, unable to make their claims legally due to the Third Safe Party agreement between the two countries – which states that the U.S is a safe country, and therefore asylum claims must be made there – have been willing to undertake great measures to reach Canada. In winter they crossed snow-covered fields and woods in the extreme cold, where temperatures can get as low as -40C, and did so by foot. Then in the summer, thousands arrived, ferried by cabs along backwoods roads and climbing through muddy ditches carrying only the few possessions a suitcase could hold and the clothes on their backs.

Cross-border asylum claims have always existed, in fact the Third Safe Party Agreement was introduced in 2004 in an attempt to stop asylum shopping. Yet the deal did not stop cross-border asylum claims completely, with approximately 3,000-4,000 claims made at land crossings each year between 2011 and 2015.

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Data from Canada Border Services Agency and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

However, in the past two years there has been a notable escalation. From December of 2016 until May 2017, 3,459 individuals made the crossing, meeting the yearly average for 2011-2015. Later in the summer, with the onset of warmer weather, the number increased further. In August alone, the RCMP, Canada’s national police force, intercepted 5712 asylum claimants crossing the border, bringing the total interceptions for the year up to an astounding 13,211. This escalation and its public visibility stand out. Asylum seekers citing fear of deportation by the Trump administration as their reason for coming to Canada, and the death of a woman, found face-down in a cold ditch without warm clothing, has spurned concerns amongst Canadians, and consistently made both national and local headlines.

This crisis has been fomented by the actions of policymakers on both sides of the border. Following the chaotic implementation of Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban”, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada” to much fanfare. The “Muslim Ban” itself, which temporarily halted the entry of all refugees into the States and banned all travelers from seven Muslim majority countries, stoked fear amongst immigrants and those with undocumented status. Furthermore, the President’s hostile rhetoric towards immigrants of all kinds, as well as an increase in immigration control raids, including outside schools and churches, have further enhanced the mentioned fear of detainment and deportation.

Departmental American policy decisions have exaggerated this problem. In May, the Department of Homeland Security, advised the 58,000 Haitians in America to “prepare and arrange their departure from the United States” within 6 months, only renewing their Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for that period. This TPS order, originally granted after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, was designed to protect those who could not safely return to their home country by giving them the legal right to live and work within the United States. However, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. This urge for a better life, combined with increasingly vocal xenophobic attitudes in the U.S, as well as misinformation about their chance of  gaining asylum in Canada, lead Haitians to make up the bulk of the summer crossings. 

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Roxham Road at the Canadian-American Border, Google Street View

Many of these crossings have been made at one location, Roxham Road, an unpaved route heading from Champlain, New York, to Hemingford, Quebec.  By early August, the numbers crossing there had reached 200-250 a day, and over the month of August; would accumulate to over 5,000, forcing the Quebec and Canadian governments into action. The RCMP and CBSA, Canada’s border control agency,  set up processing stations around Roxham Road, from which shuttle buses took asylum seekers to shelters set up around Montreal, including the city’s iconic Olympic Stadium, and the Royal Victoria Hospital Complex. As the numbers rose and existing resources became strained, the Canadian Army deployed in nearby Lacolle, Quebec to build a refugee camp, at first capable of housing up to 500 people, and then expanding for up to 1,200. Further afield, a shelter was set up in Cornwall, Ontario for those asylum seekers wishing to settle in Ontario rather than Quebec. At the same time, the Trudeau Government released statements warning that “Illegally crossing the border will not fast-track immigration”.

Throughout this saga, the Trudeau Government has found itself under a growing chorus of criticism from both the left and the right. The Conservative Party has criticized the Liberal government for encouraging “unsafe and illegal” border crossings, while the leftist NDP have rammed the government’s delayed response and stated that the Third Safe Party Agreement “must be suspended immediately”. The Canadian public has also had mixed feelings about the nature of these latest arrivals and the government response to it. According to recent polling done by Angus Reid, 53% of Canadians feel that the government has been “too generous” in its response to the crisis, versus the 34% who believe the response has been “the right amount”. Additionally, 54% of those surveyed felt that Trudeau had been “unclear” in his messaging, while 57% disapproved of the “overall handling of the situation”, though all these numbers varied substantially depending on age, party affiliation, and gender.

Despite the dramatic appearance of the situation, these kinds of events are not unprecedented in Canadian-American history. A long tradition of migration over the shared border exists, both legal and illegal. As always there is immigration for economic and political reasons, as seen in the current spike in American students enrolled at Canadian schools, including McGill. Yet, alongside this exists a tradition of people fleeing persecution in the United States and coming to Canada in hopes for a better life. In the

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Canadian Border on the Prairies Source: m01229

1960s and 1970s, Vietnam War “draft dodgers” came to Canada, about 40,000 of them according to government estimates, many of whom stayed on and settled here. A century earlier, between 1840 and 1860, up to 30,000 people fleeing slavery were smuggled along the Underground Railroad from the Southern States to freedom in Canada. These escaped slaves were ferried from safe-house to safe-house until they reached the Canadian border, where much like today they came across illegally at discreet crossings. Even parts of Canada’s founding story reflect this heritage. Following the American Revolution, over 100,000 British loyalists escaped north, many of them fleeing from political persecution, social ostracization, and violence. In a precursor to modern events, the town of Cornwall, now the site of the Ontarian shelter for asylum seekers, was founded by Loyalist refugees who crossed from upstate New York.

As of the writing of this article, the rate of asylum crossings has dropped to 50 individuals a day, well below its summer heights. Meanwhile, the Canadian Armed Forces are dismantling much of the refugee camp in Lacolle, Quebec and preparing the rest of it to be heated for the winter, while adding permanent cooking, laundry, and perimeter facilities. Additionally, tensions continue to rise; on September 30th, several hundred members of La Meute, and Storm Alliance – Far-Right Québécois organizations -traveled to the much-used Roxham Road crossing, briefly shutting down the site. At the same time in Ottawa, clashes occurred between those for and against the entrance of asylum seekers. Despite these events, the root causes that led to both the influx this summer and those braving the perilous conditions last winter have not changed. If anything, there are more dark clouds on the horizon. There are 250,000 Nicaraguans, El Salvadorians, and Hondurans whose Temporary Protected Status is up for renewal by the Trump Administration in January and March of 2018. Additionally, due to Presidential decree, if the U.S Congress does not pass measures to replace DACA by March, 300,000 thousand young adults, many whose only language is English, could face the risk of deportation in 2018, with an additional 320,000 following suit in the first half of 2019.

Although this risk is unlikely, it is still a real risk. Many Americans have banded together in defense of those affected, at least five states and 663 counties have laws limiting cooperation with immigration officials, and suggestions of deporting DACA recipients are very unpopular. Yet, as the past year has shown, even a fraction of these larger numbers heading north poses major logistical challenges in the summer, never-mind the northern winter. In Canada, the ramifications of American turmoil will continue to give politicians, policymakers, and the general public plenty to react to, while also stirring homegrown discontent. As former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau once said about his American neighbours: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”


This article has been edited by Sarie Khalid