Waves of asylum seekers keep coming at illegal border crossing in Quebec

CBC News visits the remote end of a gravel road in Quebec that's become a popular illegal border crossing for asylum seekers from the U.S.

Gravel-topped end of Roxham Rd. has become a 24/7 outdoor processing centre

A man who crossed into Canada at an illegal crossing in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., holds the baby of a fellow traveller as they sort through their paperwork to show RCMP officers. (CBC)

After just a few minutes standing at the end of Roxham Road, where Quebec and New York meet, the first asylum seeker appears: a lone man in a taxi seeking to make his way into Canada. 

Ten minutes later, another taxi, this one carrying a family of four.

Over the next hour, three more taxis, a minivan and a shuttle bus.

In a period of six hours, late Tuesday and into early Wednesday, 16 taxi drops deliver more than 80 asylum seekers to the border.

RCMP officers stationed at the gravel-topped stretch of road in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., dutifully shout out warnings that this is an illegal border crossing and that anyone attempting to enter Canada will be arrested.

The warnings are immediately ignored. The entire point of this trek is to get arrested. To get into the Canadian immigration system and out of the American one.

Record numbers of asylum seekers cross into Canada through Roxham Road

6 years ago
Duration 0:44
Record numbers of asylum seekers cross into Canada through Roxham Road

The police officers and border officials assigned to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle are not authorized to speak to reporters. But in a series of private conversations, multiple officials tell a similar story.

They say it has been this way for weeks: a stream of taxis, buses and vans dropping people at the border so they can be arrested and get into Canada.

24/7 outdoor processing centre

During a single 24-hour period from Tuesday into Wednesday, close to 300 asylum seekers crossed the border at Roxham Road, a police source said.

Other officials said 200 people a day has become common in recent weeks. Just a few weeks ago, this stretch of road averaged 30 a day.

Many of the asylum seekers who left the U.S. for Canada in recent months are originally from countries targeted by U.S. President Donald Trump's so-called  travel ban, which many critics say is actually a Muslim ban. But the current surge consists mostly of Haitians, driven from their homeland by the 2010 earthquake, who were told by the U.S. government in May they could face deportation as early as January.

The influx has become so great that many newcomers were bused to Montreal's Olympic Stadium on Wednesday, where they will sleep on cots set up in the concession stand area. 

Those arriving at Roxham Road were a mix of families and single men. There was a significant number of young children, including a few no more than a few weeks old. Several women in late stages of pregnancy held their kids as they dragged their belongings behind them in well-worn suitcases. 

The illegal crossing has evolved since more migrants started arriving late last year. Back then, it was a lonely gravel road that ended in a ditch to mark where Quebec and Canada ended and New York and the United States began.

Now, that ditch and dirt road is a 24/7 outdoor processing centre.

The local Quebec municipality has filled in part of the ditch to make a footpath so the elderly, infirm or very pregnant can cross more easily. Metal barriers have been set up to help with crowd control. There are tents to protect everyone from the blazing summer sun. Generators power fans during the day and lights at night. There's even a pair of portable toilets.

Each person who crosses the border here is questioned, processed and searched. Luggage is placed in the back of a large cube truck after being thoroughly searched by RCMP officers. Eventually, the migrants are taken away on a round-the-clock, load-and-go minibus to a makeshift RCMP detachment for holding and further processing before being handed off to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Officers ask to see passports or proof of identification, search through the asylum seekers' phones and laptops, and note their height, weight and whether they're currently on any medications. (Lisa Laventure/CBC)

That RCMP detachment is minutes away, just a few hundred metres up Route 15 from the legal border crossing with the United States. A police officer told CBC News it has only one toilet and was designed to hold 30 to 40 people.

But the numbers being held there now are so large that dozens of detainees had to spend Tuesday night outside, with only a tent canopy for shelter. They were held inside a chain-link compound that also houses RCMP vehicles, some trailer units and a row of portable toilets. At dawn on Wednesday, dozens of migrants were in the yard sitting on folding chairs waiting to be processed.

Eventually, they will move across the road to yet another temporary detention centre. This one is run by the CBSA, and officials told CBC News the facility is also bursting at the seams. There isn't enough room or beds for the volume of people coming in. Some detainees sleep on the floor, using pieces of cardboard as mattresses.

As CBSA and RCMP officials try to process people already in custody, the load-and-go minibus continues to make its frequent runs to the border.

On the American side, New York state taxis have built a booming cottage industry taking people to Roxham Road. There's always another wave to deliver. And the next one is never far behind.

The temporary RCMP processing centre has recently been handling 300 or so asylum seekers at day at the illegal crossing on Roxham Road. (Lisa Laventure/CBC)