'Please, we need a home': Nigerian asylum seekers follow well-trodden migrant route to Canada

Migrants risk arrest and an uncertain future for a chance to slip into Canada as they continue to cross into the country illegally. The Canadian government can't seem to plug the breach of the border along a well-trodden route from New York state into Quebec.

Taxis wait at bus station in Plattsburgh, N.Y., to take people to unofficial border crossing into Quebec

Lillian, centre, who has her 22-month-old son strapped to her back, pauses before she illegally crosses into Canada from upstate New York. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

Just before dawn, a Greyhound bus wheels into a gas station at Plattsburgh, N.Y.

In the misty darkness, taxis circle, knowing they'll get fares. The passengers who are struggling off the bus, sleepy from the overnight ride from New York City, are eager to get to the border with Quebec 45 kilometres away.

A couple of kids pull thin blue blankets around them to ward off the early morning chill.

This group of Nigerians — about 12 of them — have made their way to the start of Plattsbugh's pipeline to Canada. It's a one way-route out of the U.S. at an unofficial border crossing that the Canadian government can't seem to plug.

It is the busiest crossing in Canada and growing still. In August, despite government efforts to staunch the flow, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says that 5,530 more asylum seekers entered Quebec near Plattsburgh, nearly double those in July and bringing the total in 2017 to 11,896.  

Asylum seekers steps away from Canada listen as the RCMP tells them they will be arrested as they cross over from New York state, north of Plattsburgh. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

As Aisha climbs out of the taxi van, she is distraught.

"Please, we need a home, our children need to go to school."

The single mother with four kids travelled from Philadelphia to Manhattan. She then spent six hours on the bus to upstate New York and another 30 minutes by taxi to the dead end road at the border.

Steps away is Canada.

Hearing about the pipeline

She's almost crying as she blurts out her story: Almost a year in the United States, no legal papers, her last landlord told her to move on, she's had to beg for money.

She says ''we've been hearing" about this pipeline and she's determined to get into Canada to apply for refugee status.  

"I left Nigeria with frustration.... In Africa, they want them to go to Arabic school. At a tender age, they will give them to a man. I don't want that to happen."

Aisha left Nigeria for the United States for a better future but says 'it was worse.' She says she believes in Canada, she and her young family will be treated compassionately. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

When asked whether she believes she'll be able to stay in Canada, she says defiantly: "I can work, I'm an African woman. If I see a job, I will do it. I want a better life for my children."

In August, as the numbers swelled at this crossing near LaColle, Que., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched an offensive to tamp down expectations, stamp out myths and plug the flow of asylum seekers flooding into Canada.

Many then were Haitians. The federal government even sent an MP to Miami to persuade those in the Haitian community not to come north.

But this month, flights from Florida to Plattsburgh are still arriving, bringing asylum seekers.

The numbers are nudging down, say the taxi drivers, who've seen a healthy uptick in business.

Betting their futures

But a steady stream of migrants from other communities are hearing about the crossing and betting their futures on it.

Under the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, an asylum seeker must appeal for refugee status in the first country of arrival. In these cases, that would be the U.S.

But there is an exception if a migrant crosses into another country (Canada) at a place other than an official border crossing.

Roxham Road dead ends in the bush in upstate New York, a metre from Canada. (Susan Ormiston/CBC )

That allows for the bizarre and dramatic scene playing out every day at the dead end of Roxham Road north of Plattsburgh.

The RCMP has been forced to staff a temporary satellite detachment with four teams monitoring the crossing 24/7.

They've set up large white winterized tents, a trailer and equipment for processing migrants. Buses also transport asylum seekers to another tented camp in Lacolle, Que.

As the taxis approach, RCMP officers come out and prepare for the requisite warnings to the asylum seekers.

"This is an illegal crossing. The official border crossing is a few kilometres from here," shouts RCMP Cpl. Laurette Jones as she stands behind a metal barricade that crudely marks the border.

A metre of dirt, well worn with the tread of suitcases, separates the countries.

"Are you aware the very minute you cross this border your status in the U.S. is nullified," Jones yells at the huddle of people, children in their arms, clutching their suitcases.

'Canada will help us'

"We know. We want to come into Canada. Canada will help us. We have nowhere else to go," members of the group yell back.

"We believe in Canada," shouts one man, as one by one they wrestle their suitcases through the dirt to the waiting RCMP.

A stake marks the dividing line between upstate New York and Quebec. Nearly 12,000 asylum seekers have crossed this year at this spot in spite of federal government attempts to slow them down. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Some have temporary visas for the U.S. including tourist visas, but others have outrun their legal stay in the U.S.

Lillian, who didn't give her last name, has a 22-month-old son strapped to her back, fast asleep. Her baby was born in the U.S. and is therefore a citizen but she is not. Her visa expired last July.

"I went to search Google and I figured out this is what everybody is doing, that Canada has a future for the children, for everybody, so that's why I want to give it a chance," she said.

"It's a risk I understand that," she said, but "Donald Trump don't want me to stay in the United States. He said he doesn't want immigrants."

A sanctuary again

Colin Read, a transplanted Canadian who is mayor of Plattsburgh, said the city started seeing "this large influx of people coming though" almost immediately after last year's U.S. presidential election. 

Historically, Plattsburgh was part of the Underground Railway for American slaves making their way north to Canada. The city's become a kind of sanctuary again.

"We have no reason to see it abating right now," said Read. "It seems like there is one wave after another of groups concerned about their status."

Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read says his primary concern is keeping migrants to be safe as they cross through his city en route to Canada. (City of Plattsburgh)

Immigrants from a raft of countries under temporary protected status in the U.S. are worried they'll be kicked out next year, when the Trump administration renews or cancels agreements that are due to expire this winter and next spring.

In British Columbia, settlement groups are preparing for more asylum seekers originating from El Salvador and Honduras to cross into the province on foot. In August, border crossers to B.C. doubled to 102 people, up from 51 in July, according to IRCC.  

Read is part of Plattsburgh Cares, a settlement group trying to ease the way for migrants heading north.

"I'm sure the Canadians have their own legitimate concerns. My concern as a mayor of a city where this is occurring is to make sure people are healthy and kept safe," says Reid.

Some Canadians appear to be concerned. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll last spring, four out of 10 respondents said border-crossers who are coming into Canada illegally from the U.S. could make the country less safe.

Phone calls back home

The CBSA says less than one per cent of asylum seekers crossing from Roxham Road have "serious criminality" and have been detained.

It will not say how many, if any, have been deported this year.

In Plattsburgh, taxi driver Joe Ramistalla has made a fistful of money from the upsurge in fares to the border. And he's got lots to say about what's going on.

Taxi driver Joe Ramistalla helps some of the families who arrive in Plattsburgh get to the border. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

"I coach them," he says, referring to the families he transports to the border. "I get yelled at a lot from your [Canadian] border folks, but I don't care. Some of these families really need help."

He says asylum seekers often give him a card with a phone number and plead with him to phone their families once they've set foot in Canada.

"I phone. Sometimes they break down crying and sometimes they say: 'Uncle Joe, he's going to be there next Friday.' I get a lot of that."

'We call them runners'

Ramistalla says there is a network of drivers who charge large sums to bring people from large cities on the Eastern Seaboard up to Plattsburgh and then call local drivers to take them on the last leg to the border.

"We call them runners. They come up from Manhattan. They'll charge 1,500 bucks per cab. And they'll meet us here at the airport, we do the exchange."

He has his own theory about the breach in Canada's border: "You have somewhat small control over who's coming into your country. That's how I feel, because when they close that little road, there's 50 other roads."

On the U.S. side, Brad Brant, a supervisor with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says handling the volume of "northbounders" is pulling patrolling resources from other parts of the border where New York, New Hampshire and Vermont butt up against Quebec.

Brad Brant, a supervisor with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and his team patrol more than 500 kilometres of border between New York state, New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec. (CBC)

"There are a bunch of guys [RCMP] here who aren't patrolling the rest of the border we share together that is our border to secure. They can't help us if they are focused here, so both countries pay a cost for it."

Back at the border, another column of taxis has arrived with more migrants, these from the Plattsburgh airport.

One Haitian man and his wife have been waiting three years for their U.S. status to be resolved. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, he's given up.

He's going to try Canada instead.

With files from Sylvia Thomson