Why are thousands of Haitians streaming into Canada from the U.S.?

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened not to renew the temporary protection status given to more than 50,000 Haitians after the 2010 earthquake, prompting the influx of asylum seekers into Canada. But many don't know they could still face deportation here.

50,000 Haitians could lose protected status in the U.S., but Canada could deport those seeking asylum

Asylum seekers board a bus after crossing the border into Canada from the U.S. at a police checkpoint close to the Canada-U.S. border near Hemmingford, Que., on Thursday. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Heading to Canada is one of the only options seen by many of the 50,000 Haitians who've been living under temporary protection status in the U.S. — but many don't know they face deportation here, too, should their asylum claim be rejected.

The temporary protection status for Haitians in the U.S. granted after the 2010 earthquake is set to expire in January.

The Department of Homeland Security considers Haiti to be a safe country now, and it's warned that the U.S. doesn't intend to renew that status, prompting the deluge of asylum seekers crossing into Canada.

"There is a major humanitarian crisis coming up this January," said Emmanuel Depas, a New York-based immigration lawyer, who was born in Haiti.

Depas said many of his clients' only hope is coming to Canada. Going back to Haiti would mean living in poverty, facing persecution or, for a fifth of them with U.S.-born children, being separated from their families, he said.

"I've even suggested looking into Canada to people because there aren't that many options," he told CBC News Thursday.

End of Canada's deportation protection

"It's a real threat. Donald Trump is out to make immigrants' lives uncomfortable in the United States, to the point where they no longer feel welcome here," Depas added.

However, Canada's own program granting Haitian nationals temporary refuge here after the earthquake has already ended, after it was extended twice by the Trudeau government.

A temporary RCMP processing centre has been set up to handle the approximately 300 asylum seekers crossing the border illegally every day in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle near Hemmingford, Que. (Lisa Laventure/CBC)

In 2004, when a coup d'état removed then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Canada banned deportations to Haiti.

Years of instability followed. Then came the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000, followed five years later by a devastating hurricane that destroyed a large portion of the island.

Canada's last extension of the ban ended Aug. 4, 2016, meaning the 3,200 Haitians without status in Canada have had to apply for residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Serge Bouchereau, who helped establish an advocacy group for Haitians without status, said most were granted residency. Some returned to Haiti of their own will, and many are still living here without status.

To Haitians in the U.S., however, the grass appears greener in Canada.

Relying on rumours and hope

"Unfortunately, a lot of folks in this situation are not well-educated on the immigration laws in the U.S. or the immigration laws in Canada," said Patricia Elizee, a Miami immigration lawyer and past president of the U.S.-based Haitian Lawyers Association.

"They're just relying on rumours and hope for a better future for themselves and their families."

Text messages sent with WhatsApp have been circulated, encouraging Haitian nationals with or without TPS to come to Canada.

One forwarded to CBC says Canada "invited and even encouraged all Haitians to apply for residence ... the fees will be covered by the Canadian government." 

The wave of Haitian migration to Canada in the past month isn't surprising to Bouchereau. Migrants believe the prospect of living without status there is worse than here, he said.

Bouchereau said Montreal's large Haitian community, which is about 120,000 strong, has family, business and cultural ties with those south of the border.

"Knowing Canada is a land of welcome, the word going around is that it's open to Haitians," he said, noting that seeing asylum seekers are well-treated when they cross the border will encourage "more and more" to join them.

For many Haitians in the U.S., the only hope of avoiding deportation to Haiti is coming to Canada. But the future here is uncertain, too. (Charles Contant/CBC)

"These people are panicked because they know Trump isn't joking around and that he won't renew [their protected status]," he said.

"They'll die of hunger in Haiti. Where are they going to live there? Haiti is unable to feed its own people and provide basic safety."​

Consequences for those staying in U.S.

On top of that, said Depas, the New York lawyer, the climate for those without status in the United States is the worst it's been in a long time, and the anxiety for immigrant families is hitting fever pitch.

"Anybody that's in the way of ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], who doesn't have documents, they'll take them," Depas said.

Living without status means "living in the shadows," he said, facing victimization from under-the-table employers and law enforcement.

The U.S. decision will also affect Haiti's economy, which is largely reliant on remittances sent from family members working in North America. That money is helping Haiti's ability to rebuild after the earthquake and the hurricane, he said.

Though temporary protection status was "never supposed to lead to a green card or citizenship, it's still a benefit," he said. "When you give somebody something … it's really hard to take it away."

"People, they've developed ties, roots into this country."

Uncertain future after 12 years in U.S.

Farah Larrieux was in her early 20s when she arrived in the U.S. in 2005 with her husband, some big dreams and a tourist visa.

She began a public relations company and bought a car, so the couple applied for green cards. When they were refused, she "lost everything," Larrieux told CBC News.

After Larrieux and her partner divorced, she fought depression along with a court deportation order.

Larrieux wasn't allowed to work or drive during that time. When the temporary protection status was established in 2010, her application was approved.

"I was finally able to find a job and rebuild my life step by step," she said from her work in Miramar, Fla.

Farah Larrieux has been in the U.S. since 2005 and was granted temporary protection status in 2010. Now, she may have to leave. (Farah Larrieux)

"Out of the blue, now they're telling us, we're kicking you out?… This is real injustice."

She's been advocating for the U.S. Congress to adjust the status of all those with temporary protection status — estimated to be around 300,000 people from several countries — so they can stay permanently.

If not, she said, the displacement will create a crisis for millions, and Haitians will continue to risk their lives to try to reach the U.S. and Canada — only to be told, one day, to go back.

"This is the fear, the stress that you're living every day as an immigrant," she said.