Desperate Crossing: Cuban man risked his life to enter Canada through train tunnel
'It certainly would take a certain amount of courage to cross the way he did, as well as daring'
Miguel Padron clung to a rough wall in the darkness and felt his way through the tunnel. Noxious fumes swirled at his feet and up into his lungs, causing him to choke, but he pressed on.
Fear of deportation spurred his bruised feet forward, and the hope of leaving the hatred hurled at immigrants in the United States made him desperate enough to risk his life in the pitch-black rail tunnel running more than two kilometres under the St. Clair River between Port Huron, Mich. and Sarnia, Ont.
Padron's story echoes that of thousands of other immigrants in the U.S. who have been fleeing since the election of Donald Trump. In March, a wave of refugees braved the snows of Manitoba. More recently, Quebec has seen a flood of asylum seekers cross its border and, so far, more than 10,865 asylum claimants have been processed in Ontario in 2017.
The 57-year-old Cuban had watched the tunnel for hours, hidden in the bushes where he swatted away mosquitoes and timed the trains that thundered by. When he saw his chance, he took it.
After a short prayer he decided to leave his heavy luggage behind and headed in, carrying only his hopes for a better future and a small bag.
An hour later, delirious from the gasses underground and with security alarms ringing in his ears, Padron crawled out of the tunnel and into Canada.
It was July 4, Independence day.
"In the tunnel it was very dark, it was like hell," he said. "But I think God walked with me. I think God has a plan for me in Canada."
Padron collapsed in a clump of bushes near the entrance and tried to calm his breathing and clear his lungs. Railway police and border agents probed the tunnel with flashlights. Padron quickly surrendered.
He'll never forget the first words he heard in Canada: "A police officer told me 'You're lucky to be alive.'"
A dangerous crossing
Attempts to enter Canada through the rail tunnel are very rare, according to Mike Coene, president of the border worker's union in Sarnia.
"It's extremely dangerous," he added.
The tunnel is protected by a range of security measures that alert officials the second anything, even small animals or birds, enters it. Harmful gasses and trains barreling through the passage obviously add to the risk.
The RCMP is responsible for security between Canadian ports of entry, but a spokesperson stated that due to privacy concerns the force could not comment specifically on Padron's case.
"Individuals who are illegally entering Canada may not be aware that their crossing may be under extreme conditions and dangers they may encounter which can have dire effects to their well-being," wrote Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer in a statement to CBC News.
CN officials have also raised concern about Padron's path to Canada. In an email, spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis wrote railways should never be used as a passageway and that hundreds of trespassers are "seriously or fatally wounded on railroads" across the country every year.
Padron admits he was lucky to escape unscathed, and advises against following his lead. But he maintains his journey was necessary.
Fears for the future in a country that hates
A gymnastics coach by trade, Padron's career has carried him to Russia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Michigan.
His hands are usually in motion when he speaks, with brightly-beaded bracelets clacking on his wrists, but when he talks about his time in the U.S., his spirit seems sapped and his hands sag to his side.
"I saw too much hate over there in the United States," he said. "The whole country hates ... they hate immigrant people."
Padron said he tried to get residency in the U.S., but was denied. Years ago he attempted to legally move to Canada, but was turned down by officials. He acknowledges his past isn't perfect — it includes three DUIs and some time behind bars, but without a country to call home he started to fear for his future.
'He's a good guy'
After his night-time crossing, Padron was transported by the CBSA to their headquarters near the Blue Water Bridge, where he was processed before being released to a hotel. When his money ran out, he said the agency told him about the River City Vineyard Shelter.
Shelter supervisor Will Dunbar said Padron made an impression on staff the moment he came through the door. His energy was addicting and the two have become close in the weeks he's lived at the shelter.
"He's a good-natured man. He's a good guy," Dunbar said, adding Padron helped clean up around the shelter and toiled in its community garden.
Padron is a first for the shelter. They've never heard of someone crossing through the tunnel or dealt with somebody who is "effectively a refugee."
"It certainly would take a certain amount of courage to cross the way he did, as well as daring," said Dunbar, who feels Padron's story shows how unwelcome some immigrants feel in America. "That's the lengths he felt were necessary to ... get to Canada."
A complicated case
Staff at the shelter are working with Padron to get him a work permit and have even helped him purchase a plane ticket to Ottawa, where there's a gymnastics club looking for a coach.
"I want to get a job and live a normal life like everybody," he said.
Bart DeVries, an immigration consultant hired to help Padron, said his case is very complicated.
In a home office just a few kilometres from the tunnel his client crossed, DeVries has been working to unravel Padron's unique status in Canada.
"Normally I know whether people are either totally out of status or have a certain status or need a change of status, but in this case I'm in a little bit of limbo," he said. "I don't have a totally clear picture of what's happening. But it's obvious Miguel will need all the help he can get."
DeVries explained Padron was concerned about President Donald Trump's take on immigration and opted to choose where he wanted to live before the administration made that choice for him.
"Miguel told me he was afraid of being deported from the United States even though there wasn't a specific action in place," the consultant said. "I think he just wanted to be one step ahead of the game and thought 'I better move now' before something else happens."
Laughter and love in Canada
Padron is currently required to report to CBSA officials once a month. In a few weeks, at their next meeting, DeVries plans to be by his side.
The Cuban who came to Canada through the tunnel said he's hoping the Canadian government will let him stay and take back his life.
"Before I would be mad every day, angry because people hate me," he said. "But here in Canada it's different. I'm laughing again. I'm happy. My life is back to me."