Waiting on Roxham Road: How the Safe Third Country Agreement is changing lives on both sides of the border

This week, The House is on the road to explore the reasons behind the recent increase in the number of asylum seekers leaving the United States and crossing the border into Canada.
RCMP greet three men illegally entering Quebec from Roxham Road in upstate New York on Thursday. (Catharine Tunney/CBC)
Listen to the full episode49:59

An RCMP officer takes a last drag of his cigarette. There's word someone is coming.

Standing on a muddy, partially snow-covered mound on the Canadian side of Roxham Road, a rural stretch that's become a freeway for people seeking refuge in Canada, the officer and two of his colleague adjust their positions and put on gloves as a zooming cab comes into view.

All that's separating three RCMP officers from the U.S. side of the road side is a shallow ditch.

Three men pile out of the van with backpacks.

"We have issues over here and we want a safe place to live," the apparent leader of the group mumbles to a waiting CBC Radio's The House crew.

After waiving aside the stern warnings from the Mounties that they'll be arrested with simple "yeah, yeah," the three men leap over that ditch, landing their feet into Canada.

It's a leap of faith a growing number of asylum seekers are making to get around the Safe Third Country Act, that piece of legislation which requires refugees make a claim in the first country they land in. People who have already made a claim in the U.S. can't then shop their claim to Canada, and vice versa.

A section of legal jargon most Canadians were probably unaware of until recently, but everyone, from Conservative leadership contenders to advocates, seem to have an opinion on.

This week CBC's The House travelled the road to understand how the quirk in the Canada-U.S. border agreement is dominating the lives of people who want to flee the United States, those guarding the border and those living near it.

Welcome to Roxham Road, fast becoming one of the most famous rural roads in America.

'Somehow, this country seems to have lost sight that it was founded by immigrants,' says Carole Slatkin. She is a founder of Plattsburgh Cares, a coalition trying to counter the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. (Catharine Tunney/CBC) (Catharine Tunney/CBC)

There's barely any markings announcing the Plattsburgh bus station. It's a gas station complete with an A&W, a Dunkin' Donuts and fridge stocked with beer.

A bus driver calls out loud that the Montreal-bound bus is ready preparing to leave. He's noticed an increase in the number of passengers seeking to make a refugee claim.

"It's happening more often... maybe in the last few months they've been coming more often," said the Trailway bus driver, who didn't want to give his name.

It's here at the bus station where some asylum seekers sometimes hop off to grab a cab to Roxham Road, sometimes for a hefty price.

Janet McFetridge lives near Roxahm in Champlain and says since Donald Trump's election victory a few months ago, there's been an obvious traffic increase in the area.

"I've seen many, many cabs go by and you do not normally see a single cab driver in Champlain. There's no reason to, people aren't normally taking cabs up north," she said.

Plattsburgh Police Lt. Scott Beebie is aware of the price fleecing. There's a cab charge structure that can enforced within city limits, but once a driver heads north, Beebie's hands are tied.

"I've heard as much as $500 depending on how many people are in the cab. There's nothing the city of Plattsburgh can do," he said.  "It's excessive."

U.S. Border Patrol agents and state troopers have a presence on the U.S. side of Roxham Road, and while they are happy to talk to people driving up and down the road, they are also limited in what they can do to deter people from entering Canada.

Swanton Sector Agent Michael Estrella says unless they catch someone who is illegally staying in the United States, no laws are being broken by leaving the country.

"We do explain to them that they must conduct a legal crossing and that has to be done at a port of entry and that they are in violation of Canadian law," he said.

"We cannot take them into custody nor can we stop them from making any travels."

While limited in what they can do outside of his Plattsburgh jurisdiction, Beebie said his force wants to get the message out that they can help hook migrants with a growing number of groups in the area wanting to help.

"As law enforcement we'll do whatever we can do point you in the right direction. We're not just an enforcement entity, we're an entity that helps facilitates services," he said.

"We have to have some type of contact to help you."

Finding ways to help

Groups like the one McFetridge helps run are trying to insert themselves into this underground cycle, offering clothes, legal assistance and money to those wishing to leave. Her 700-member-strong group plans to meet with their Republican congresswomen and they've written to the Canada Border Services Agency and the Montreal YMCA to offer help.

"I think at this point most of these people are in transit. They're not stopping in Plattsburgh other than to climb off a bus and climb in a cab and head north," she said. "I think over the past couple of decades immigration has turned into something negative based on fear and prejudice... It's a shame, it's not the basis of our country."

Plattsburgh, part of a lone wedge of northern New York state that voted Democrat in the last presidential election, is not officially a Sanctuary City, but its mayor, who just six years ago become a U.S. citizen after moving from Canada, sees their role as unofficial babysitters until the asylum seekers move north.

The reasons to migrate north is obvious to Mayor Colin Read.

I don't know if that statue of liberty kind really quite applies right now given the national tenor.- Plattsburg mayor Colin Read

"I think a general unease in the direction of our immigration policy. Many of the people coming through here actually still are legal residents or legal visitors to the country but they're just seeing a lot of uncertainty and of course Canada has a very different immigration policy. Canada invites immigrants," he said.

"I don't know if that statue of liberty kind really quite applies right now given the national tenor."

The Quebec side of Roxham road

Their passports are different, but McFetridge and Susan Heller could be considered neighbours.

If you get pass the quacking ducks guarding her front door, the smell of fresh bread, warmth of a roaring wood stove and the sound of classical music greets visitors into Heller's 200-year-old farmhouse, which she's owned for 50 years.

She's so close to the border that she once illegally crossed the border just to chase down her runaway horse.

Susan Heller talks to CBC Radio's The House team at her farmhouse on Roxham Road, where these days the RCMP have a constant presence. (Catharine Tunney/CBC)

So close, that asylum seekers have wandered pass her farmhouse looking for help.

"A young fellow stopped at the corner because there wasn't RCMP at the border and he said 'Could I have a  glass of water?" she recalled.

That's changed in the last few months now that RCMP vehicles are permanently parked near the border ditch, watching 24 hours a day.

""If a car goes pass the lights go on my ceiling," she said.

"I think the police are going too fast. They'd roar off from zero and everything ringing and banging all night. And I thought these people want to come over. Why are they rushing to get them when they wish to be caught? That's why they're escaping," she said.

British-born Heller said besides one or two neighbours, most people on the Canadian side of Roxham Road are happy to help.

"I went through the war. You know about evacuees? We had them in our house during the Second World War. I think it's an amazing thing and I think it's excellent that Canada says yes."

The journey continues in Montreal

In Montreal, about an hour drive north from Heller's home, is the RCMP's border surveillance headquarters, a room of cameras to watch all the comings and goings.

"When there's movement we know," said, RCMP Const. Erique Gasse brushing off the suggestion that the army needs to be called in to help.

While it's normal for officers to arrest people, Gasse admits the phenomenon of arresting willing people on Roxham Road is odd..

"We give them a warning, we see them walking toward us and we say, we tell them, 'If you pass the border we are going to arrest you.' And this is not very common in our job, but we say that and they start walking toward us. So we need to arrest them obviously," he said.

We do our police work. But in other parts of the world they aren't as warm as here in Canada.- RCMP spokesperon Erique Gasse

The photos of smiling officers detaining border crossers have attracted international attention. Gasse has recently done interviews for news organizations in Britain, Norway, Australia and Norway.

"They tell us they are interested in the story because of the way we treat them when they cross the border. For us, it's a crime. We arrest them. We do our police work. But in other parts of the world they aren't as warm as here in Canada," he said.

Many officers have families of their own and try to use common sense when detaining small children, he added.

"We're all human beings obviously, but that's the way we treat people when we arrest somebody we do it professionally."

The consequences of the Safe Third Country agreement is perhaps most acutely felt by people like Mamadou, who was found collapsed in the woods by officials earlier this month making an illegal crossing.

Mamadou, whose family name is being withheld to protect his identity, is hoping to secure refugee status and start a new life in Montreal. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC)

He didn't want his last name used, fearing for his safety.

Shivering, the 45-year-old Ivory Coast man had fumbled the woods for hours in what he described as -15 C weather trying to find Canada.

"I stopped feeling," he explained from a mall cafeteria near the Montreal YMCA where he's staying.

"The police rescued my life."

After he was detained by Canadian border agents, he was moved to segregation, where horrific nightmares followed him ("People were chasing me"). Weeks later and his body still hasn't fully recovered from the frigid trek, he can only manage to shove his still swollen feet into sandals.

Besides the lingering health effects and nightmares, there's another thing gnawing at him from that crossing.

Hours before he made the decision to try the illegal route into Canada, he had tried to make a refugee claim at an official border crossing.

With the possible exception of the frozen fields outside Emerson, Man., this spot on the Quebec-New York border has come to symbolize the plight of those who no longer feel welcome in the U.S. but know they cannot enter Canada through the front door. (Catharine Tunney/CBC)

And because of that he likely risked his life for nothing.

His lawyer, Éric Taillefer, explains that if Mamadou had started on the illegal route first, his chances of being allowed to stay in Canada would be around 60 per cent.

But because he first made that claim at the border, his chances have dropped to three per cent.

He'd like to see it the Safe Third Country agreement challenged so claims could be dealt with orderly and safely at legal ports of entry.

"When you see cases like Mamadou where basically they put their lives at risk because of the agreement there is a basis for Charter challenge. The only thing is is that finding the perfect case to bring up is going to be a tough one," he said.

While activists and lawyers search for that perfect storm, Taillefer is certain people like the three men on Thursday and Mamandou will continue to put their lives up in the air for a chance to live in Canada.

"The people who are crossing right now through the woods for example, they're doing it because the are desperate. They're not going to less desperate or more desperate if the agreement is cancelled or suspended."

This week, The House is on the road to explore the reasons behind the recent increase in the number of asylum seekers leaving the United States and crossing the border into Canada. 49:59