As It Happens

Why are some New York state cabbies reporting asylum seekers to U.S. Border Patrol?

The American Civil Liberties Union is speaking out against an alleged "protocol" requiring cab drivers in New York to call U.S. Border Patrol on people seeking to cross illegally into Canada.
A Sudanese family gets out of a taxi to walk across the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Que. One New York cab company told Vermont Public Radio that it's been asked to report all would-be border crossers to U.S. Border Patrol. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The American Civil Liberties Union is speaking out after a New York taxi company owner told Vermont Public Radio he's been asked to report any would-be Canadian border-crossers to the U.S. Border Patrol.

The ACLU says such a requirement — which U.S. Border Patrol denies exists — would be legally unenforceable and only serve to exacerbate an already dangerous situation for people seeking asylum in Canada. 

The cab company operates out of Plattsburg, about 40 kilometres from the Quebec border. According to Vermont Public Radio, it's the last city from which someone can hail a taxi before reaching the Canadian checkpoint. 

"When the call comes in, we contact border patrol. We say, 'Hey, we got a call, it's going to this location, here's our ETA to that location,'' the cab company owner, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the radio station.

"We took one call there and then immediately we got a call from Border Patrol saying, 'Hey, this is protocol.' And from that point on, we've always followed protocol."

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 21 this year, there were 290 illegal crossings in Quebec, 94 in Manitoba and 51 in British Columbia, totalling 435, government officials have told CBC News. That compares with 2,464 illegal entries apprehended by the RCMP in the same regions in all of 2016.

It's really not the business of the cab company to police people's behaviour like that.- James Lyall, ACLU

James Lyall, director of the Vermont chapter of the ACLU, spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about what rights and responsibilities taxi drivers have when they bring asylum seekers to the border.

Helen Mann: Do U.S. Border Patrol have the power to force taxi drivers and cab company owners to report passengers who might want to cross illegally into Canada?

James Lyall: Absolutely not. Border patrol cannot require private individuals to call them or to try to effectively deputize cabbies, cab drivers or anyone else to be acting as immigration agents and border patrol should not be saying or implying otherwise. Any suggestion that border patrol can require co-operation like that is totally false.

A group of refugee claimants from Eritrea arrive by taxi to cross the border from New York into Hemmingford, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

HM: And what about encouraging cabbies to do this?

JL: Well sure, they can ask, but the cabbies might not comply and they would have every right not to.

It's also, I think, really important to emphasize the practical impact of this practice. It could be that people are going to take greater risks to avoid detection, just as they do on the southwest border.

HM: Are there any laws preventing a taxi driver from taking someone whose visa might have expired to a place where they could make an illegal crossing into Canada?

JL: Well, generally, cabbies don't ask people for their papers when they get into a cab and there's no reason that they have to. Generally, it would be pretty odd for a cab driver to turn back to you and ask you for identification or the status of your visa before you got in the cab or before you requested a ride. It's really none of their business. Millions of people cross our borders every day. It's really not their place.

A man who says he's from Sudan looks out of a taxi window as a U.S. Border Patrol officer checks his passport and visa at the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Que. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

HM: Is there any liability if a cab driver drops off someone sort of in the middle or nowhere where they might get injured, might get cold and might have problems crossing?

JL: Not that I know. The last time I checked, people hire cabs to take them places. The last time I checked, it's generally not the cab driver's responsibility to make sure that after they get out of the cab that they get to where they said they were going. It's really not the business of the cab company to police people's behaviour like that.

Cab drivers are not police. I mean, they can choose to insert themselves into this as apparently they're doing, but as I say, there are plenty of reasons why they might want to think twice.

RCMP officers arrest a man after he crossed the U.S.-Canada border in Hemmingford, Que., on March 5. Asylum-seekers crossing unto Canada from the U.S. are on the rise. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

One other thing, I would just say, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this is happening, this is a humanitarian crisis directly resulting from the Trump administration's unprecedented and vicious attacks on immigrants and refugees. And these are actions that are totally out of keeping with our laws and values, and for border patrol to be piling on and putting these people at even greater risk is unconscionable. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with James Lyall.