They were turned away at the Canadian border. Now what?
With few local resources to help, asylum seekers rejected by Canada take buses and hope for the best
Toddlers ran through aisles filled with snacks and candies. Adults slumped in chairs. Multiple cellphones were plugged into a single wall socket. Backpacks and suitcases were scattered among the two rows of tables in a corner of this small-town bus stop and gas station.
After they were turned away at the Canadian border and spent three days in detention, the roughly 15 asylum seekers at the Mountain Mart No. 109 in the town of Plattsburgh, N.Y., south of Montreal, on Tuesday afternoon were trying to figure out what to do.
They had tried to get into the country at the popular unofficial crossing on Roxham Road in the hours after a new border deal between Canada and the U.S. came into effect late last week.
Alan Rivas, a Peruvian man who was hoping to reunite with his girlfriend who's been living in Montreal for two years, said he'd spent $4,000 on making it this far.
"I'm trying to think about what to do now."
A sense of solidarity emerged as people recognized each other from various parts of their time stuck on the border, along with a sense of resignation and deep disappointment.
"Disappointing and heartbreaking," said a man from Central Africa, whom CBC agreed not to identify because he fears it could affect his asylum claim process in the United States.
He had shared a cab ride with a man from Chad, who fled to the U.S. after the government of his country led a violent crackdown on opponents last fall.
"It's unfair. We are not home and we suffer. We're looking for a better life," the man from Central Africa said.
The man from Chad looked up and said: "No, looking for protection is not having a better life. I had a life."
The Chadian was not let into Canada despite his wife and child being Canadian citizens, he said. Having a family member with legal status in Canada is one of the few exemptions to the strict new rules that make it nearly impossible to claim asylum at the Canada-U.S. border. His wife and child fled to a nearby country after the crackdown in Chad, but he explained that his wife's family is still in Canada.
Other exemptions include being an unaccompanied minor and having a work permit or other official document allowing a person to be in Canada.
"They made me sign a paper without giving me time to read it. They didn't explain anything," said the man, whom CBC also agreed not to name because he fears for his family's safety in an African country near Chad.
The Canada-U.S. deal was implemented swiftly before the weekend, leaving local governments and organizations little time to respond and turned-away asylum seekers struggling to find food, shelter and rides.
The man from Central Africa was trying to round up enough money to pay for a $200 bus ticket to Houston, where he would stay with a friend. The man from Chad gave him the $40 he was missing.
The Central African said he had spent his savings on coming to Canada. His hope was to live here until obtaining residency, and then arranging for his family to come to meet him.
"I know a guy in Houston who hasn't seen his family in 10 years. He still doesn't have status," he said.
A young Haitian mother cradled her baby as her toddler made friends with another child. Her family had paid an acquaintance in New Jersey $300 per adult to get to Roxham Road before midnight Friday, but the driver got lost and they arrived at 12:03 a.m.
Steven, a 24-year-old Venezuelan who attempted to cross into Canada at Roxham early Saturday morning, mingled with the people he'd met in detention. Then he tried to call his mom.
"She doesn't know," said Steven, who didn't want his last name used in this story because of fears it could affect his U.S. asylum claim. "I know I seem happy but I am sad."
Carmen Salazar, 45, also from Venezuela, watched him from another table.
"It's hard, really hard," she said.
The group of asylum seekers at the Mountain Mart had found comfort in finding each other. They all boarded a bus leaving Plattsburgh at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday. Its main destination was New York City.
Others haven't been so lucky finding a way out of Plattsburgh.
The night before, a woman who was seen at Roxham Road early Saturday, sat alone at the bus stop crying.
3 nights in a motel and no plan
Across the street, in a small motel, a 34-year-old Haitian man and his pregnant girlfriend had one night left out of three that had been paid for by local emergency housing services. But they had no plan and only $41 to their name.
"We're here. I don't know what's going to happen, but we're going to look for ways to be able to live. What I'm looking for — nothing more — is a place to rest and a place to work. Nothing else," said the man, sitting in the lobby of the motel. CBC is not naming him because of fears it could affect his American asylum claim.
The couple had intended to stay in the U.S. after crossing the Mexican border, but the woman became pregnant and developed constant pains. In the U.S., they had to stay with separate family members far from each other and the man worried about his wife and being able to afford medical bills, so they decided to try to get to Canada, having heard it was easier to find work and that health-care was more affordable, he said.
In an interview with Radio-Canada Monday, a man from another Central African country struggled to hold back tears.
He said the confusion after being taken in at Roxham Road by RCMP officers was hurtful because it wasn't clear if he'd be accepted into Canada or not. When they called his name, he was filled with hope, only to be told he was being sent to U.S. Border Patrol.
"I don't know, I don't know, I don't know where to go. I don't have anyone who will take me in," he said.
The response from U.S. Border Patrol appears to be uneven. Some asylum seekers CBC spoke with had taxis called for them, having to pay another $70 to get to the Mountain Mart. One woman was found on the side of the service road by the border and given a ride by a social science researcher and documentary photographer met by CBC.
The man interviewed by Radio-Canada was part of a group who were given a ride to the gas station by a Greyhound bus heading back to New York from Montreal.
CBC reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Monday, asking what happens to asylum seekers rejected by Canada, but did not receive a response.
Although in favour of some kind of change to reduce traffic at Roxham Road, one local official wants help from the federal governments to deal with the fallout.
Michael Cashman, supervisor for the Town of Plattsburgh, says Canada and the U.S. to come up with a response to help asylum seekers get to where they want to go in the U.S.
He isn't against the move to restrict access to Canada at Roxham Road.
"There had to be a change," he said, noting residents had been asking for one, but compared the way it was done to turning off a light switch before entering a room: "You're going to bump into some furniture."
The area is rural and has its share of struggles with transportation and housing, Cashman said.
"There isn't a robust infrastructure to be able to take on this humanitarian crisis as it develops."
On Monday and Tuesday, buses coming from New York carried only a few asylum seekers hoping to cross the border. Most knew about the new rules, believing their cases would fit some of the exemptions. Others still did not know.
By Tuesday, cab drivers were no longer ferrying people to Roxham Road, taking them to the official border crossing at Champlain, N.Y., and Lacolle, Que., instead.
With files from Simon Nakonechny