On a snowy March afternoon, a small convoy of taxis and hired cars rolled north along a New York country road that dead-ends at the Canadian border. Among those onboard: a Nigerian family of five, a Russian man traveling alone and a tearful South American woman named Giovanna.
“I have so many mixed emotions about this moment because I had to leave my family behind,” a shivering Giovanna told CNN in Spanish as she emerged from her taxi in front of the unofficial “Roxham Road” border crossing made infamous by quirk of diplomacy and street-planning that allows someone to drive to the border and walk into Canada unlawfully, rather than be turned away.
The Colombian mother is among the seemingly endless flow of migrants that since 2017 have been drawn to this frigid northernmost stretch of the US intent on crossing the international boundary in search of better asylum chances.
“I also believe I’ll have a better quality of life in Canada, and I have some family there,” said Giovanna before walking up to the invisible line in the ice that’s guarded by Canadian authorities at a makeshift post. CNN is not using her last name because of threats she says were made against her in Colombia.
“Hello madam. How are you?” asked a Spanish-speaking Canadian officer on the other side. “You cannot enter Canada here,” he informed Giovanna. “If you do, we will arrest you. Understand? You decide.”
Giovanna responded by taking five steps into Canada where officers then informed her of her rights and processed her for unlawful entry, a process which usually ends with the defendant being released into Canada to petition for asylum.
Straining the system
Lately, this scene has been repeating itself more often, prompting Canadian officials to bus recently arrived asylum-seekers to other provinces to help deal with a strain on resources in Quebec.
The Canadian government documented a record 3,901 unauthorized migrant entries into Quebec in 2022, nearly all at Roxham Road.
In January, which is the latest month on record, 4,875 asylum-seekers crossed unlawfully – more than double the number from the same time last year.
“These numbers are a dramatic increase from the numbers we’re used to seeing in Canada,” said Abdulla Daoud, executive director of The Refugee Centre, a non-profit just north of the border in Montreal which helps guide asylum-seekers.
A vast majority of the migrants assisted by his organization crossed at Roxham, according to Daoud. Canada’s due process and attainable work authorization are convincing some waiting in that United States to consider his country, he said.
“Compared to our American counterparts, it is within reach,” said Daoud, who also suspects some migrants may have a false perception of what has become a long process in Canada.
Prior to 2022, Daoud said, asylum-seekers in Canada would often receive a Refugee Protection Claimant Document, or RPCD, soon after arriving in the country. The critical document not only serves as identification for asylum seekers, but it also allows them to apply for certain provincial benefits and a coveted work authorization while their asylum cases are reviewed.
Now, because of a backlog, the best most may get upon arrival is the appointment to receive an RPCD. “We’re seeing eight months, one year, a year and a half, two years. Some of them get their appointment pushed up,” said Daoud. “Some of them have to wait and that’s becoming a problem.”
Migrant advocates are growing increasingly worried that the number of people unable to work and receiving social services will increase because of the delays.
The unauthorized crossing became popular because of a loophole in what’s called the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires asylum-seekers already in the US to petition there rather than show up at a Canadian port of entry.
That policy, however, does not apply to Roxham Road because it’s an unauthorized entry point – literally a road that dead-ends into the border and then picks up on the other side – which has incentivized migrants to use it to cross over.
Canadian police eventually set up a temporary outpost at the crossing to deal with the influx of migrants taking advantage of the road versus trekking through the surrounding forests.
If those migrants were to present themselves at the port of entry a mere 10-minute drive east, they would not be permitted to cross the border.
Some migrant advocates have been urging Canadian leaders modify or suspend the treaty altogether in order to draw migrants to legal ports of entry.
Canadian and US officials are reviewing the agreement ahead of an upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden next week.
“The only way to effectively shut down not just Roxham Road, but the entire border to these irregular crossings is to renegotiate the Safe Third Country agreement,” Trudeau previously said.
Migrants are also crossing into the US
Migrants, mostly from Mexico, are also using the area to travel south, into the US.
Mexican consular officials say people will often fly from Mexico to Canada and then make the perilous hike south to seek asylum in the US.
It’s often a way to avoid the already busy southern border that remains restricted by the pandemic era Title 42 public health authority.
In just the last five months, agents have apprehended more people crossing into the US from Canada than the last three fiscal years combined, said Chief Patrol Agent Robert Garcia, who leads the Border Patrol sector responsible for parts of northern New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.
In January 2022, the Border Patrol for Swanton, Vermont, recorded 24 encounters with migrants. This past January, the number was 367.
Garcia has also shared Border Patrol images on social media showing huddled groups trekking through the snow, some with small children.
Though the numbers are drastically smaller than the ones historically seen on the nation’s southern border, federal authorities recently deployed an additional 25 agents to help address the increase. This kind of agent reassignment is not unusual for Border Patrol sectors experiencing sudden increases in apprehensions and encounters.