360° Video

What happens when asylum seekers cross the Quebec-U.S. border illegally?

Like much of the border shared by Quebec and four American states, the Roxham Road boundary in Hemmingford, Que. is unremarkable, but what's been happening there is not.

360° view: Take a look at the Roxham Road boundary, where people are crossing illegally into Canada

An asylum claimant claiming to be from Turkey is arrested after crossing the border into Canada from the United States on Thursday, February 23, 2017 near Hemmingford, Que. A growing number of people have been walking across the border into Canada to claim refugee status. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Like much of the border shared by Quebec and four American states, the Roxham Road boundary in Hemmingford, Que. is unremarkable.

The dirt road is a 15-minute drive from the official port of entry at Lacolle. It runs through a wooded area, past the occasional country home, before coming to an abrupt end.

There are no physical obstacles preventing people from stepping over the invisible line that divides Champlain, N.Y. from Hemmingford, Que. — just a snowy ditch and a faded sign warning people to go no further.

It's one of the hot spots where increasing numbers of asylum seekers are crossing illegally from the U.S. into Canada.

360° view: What does the Roxham Road border look like?

To navigate this 360° view of the illegal crossing spot at Roxham Road, tap or click on the video and drag to look up, down or side to side. 

How do police deal with someone who crosses illegally?

By the time an individual or a group of asylum seekers reaches the Canadian border at Roxham Road, RCMP agents say they usually know about it. 

About an hour's drive away, the Montreal RCMP Operational Communications Centre monitors the border using cameras and surveillance equipment and notifies agents on the ground when a vehicle or pedestrian is approaching.

A man runs for the border after taking his family's passports from a U.S. border patrol officer as he was detained after his family crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Once a person is in sight, an officer on the ground will inform them that if they cross, they will be committing an offence under the Canadian Customs Act.

"We'll tell them that if they do cross the line that they will be arrested," said Brian Byrne, the staff sergeant responsible for the RCMP's integrated border enforcement team.

"We tell them that they should enter through a port of entry, we tell them that it's five kilometres east of here and if they don't respect the warning then we arrest them." 

Asylum seekers crossing from the U.S. to Canada usually want to be arrested, because once they clear processing they can make a refugee claim.

Because of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, asylum seekers who arrive via the U.S. are required to request refugee protection there.

If they show up at an official Canadian point of entry, and they don't meet an exception to the agreement, they'll be turned away.

But if they cross illegally, it's a different story. 

RCMP Staff-Sgt Brian Byrne says agents work to maintain relationships with citizens who live along the border. Some of the asylum seekers have been crossing through farmland and locals' backyards. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Crossing at a spot like Roxham Road is illegal, but that doesn't mean the handcuffs always come out. It's up to agents to do a risk assessment and determine what kind of approach is appropriate in each case.

RCMP Cpl. François Gagnon says a lone person crossing with a backpack is likely going to be approached differently than a family carrying an infant.

A faded sign on the American side of Roxham Road in Champlain, N.Y. warns people against crossing the boundary line. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

What happens next? 

After being taken into police custody, would-be refugee claimants are questioned and their identities are checked.

Once cleared by the RCMP they'll be handed over to the Canada Border Services Agency for processing. 

At an official checkpoint, such as the Lacolle port of entry, the CBSA will interview individuals, fingerprint them and fill out paperwork.

Authorities say more often than not, asylum seekers are allowed to walk away after they've been processed. They can stay with family or friends or at a shelter until their refugee hearing date.

However, there are exceptions: individuals will be detained if they cannot be identified, if they are considered to pose a threat, or if there's a risk they might not show up for their hearing.

Quebec shares its border with four U.S. states: New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Much of the boundary runs through forests and rural areas such as this spot, on Wolfe Ridge Road in Saint-Georges-de-Clarenceville, Que. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC )

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien

Jaela Bernstien is a national reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.