Quebec's resources wear thin as wave of asylum seekers swells (Globe & Mail)

A1-asylum03nw1.JPGThe asylum seekers arrive about a dozen by the hour at the end of a quiet country road in upstate New York, hopping out of taxis, extended passenger vans and private vehicles. They appear to range in age from seven months to 70 years, but they count more very young people than old.

(Article available at Globe&

Many drag along heavy suitcases and are well dressed – right down to some parkas and tuques in the 30-degree heat, anticipating a life ahead. Twenty-eight of the 57 people who arrive between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Thursday come from Burundi, Syria and the Palestinian territories and said they used the United States as a mere transit point to Canada. The other 29 are originally from Haiti and, in several cases, have been in the United States so long the younger ones speak only English with an American accent.

The migrants have diverse backgrounds but are united in one way: They have found their way from Boston, New York and Florida to this rural area on the Quebec border, fearing the latest or next immigration crackdown of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The number of asylum claims in Quebec tripled in recent weeks from an average of 50 a day to 150, according to the province’s Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil. She said about 70 per cent of the recent arrivals are Haitian nationals.

The recent spike in claims has clogged short-term housing for new arrivals in Montreal, leading the province to open up to 600 beds in the Olympic Stadium, the cavernous, provincially owned, underutilized sports facility in the city’s east end.

Some 6,500 people have sought asylum in Quebec in the first six months of the year, a nine-year high, but Ms. Weil noted the six-month trend is still well short of the record level in 2008, when a recession and shifting immigration rules in the United States pushed 12,000 people to seek refuge through the province’s borders in the same time frame.

Ms. Weil asked the federal government to beef up processing to reduce pressure on local resources and to quickly allow migrants heading for other parts of Canada to move on. Marc Miller, a Liberal MP in Montreal, said the government is sending additional resources to Quebec and will expedite settlement.

The federal opposition parties blasted the Liberal government for lack of preparedness. The Conservatives issued a statement saying the surge is an “unsustainable trend” that will add to a backlog in the overtaxed immigration and refugee system.

The NDP repeated a demand that the government suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States, which requires asylum seekers to make their claim in whichever of the two countries they first arrive in. The agreement means refugee claimants are usually turned away at regular crossings, pushing many to hop the border instead.

The NDP also demanded better housing. “When people are warehoused in a stadium like that, it’s not exactly a reflection of the Prime Minister’s message that Canada welcomes you,” NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said.

In the winter, with the first wave of migrants seeking refuge in Canada since the inauguration of Mr. Trump, they arrived in a trickle. In Manitoba, they would trek across frozen fields, occasionally suffering frostbite, and they added up to 170 in a month at the peak. (The traffic in Manitoba has since dropped off to 60 cases a month.)

In Quebec, an average of about 560 have come in monthly since January. Many make a short hike across a ditch to Roxham Road on the Quebec side of the border, near Hemmingford, about 60 kilometres south of Montreal. Initially, the small groups arrived sporadically to an informal checkpoint that usually consisted of one or two RCMP officers waiting in their vehicle. An observer could spend much of a day at the crossing and see only a handful of asylum seekers, or none at all.

Now, there’s no missing them.

The first family on Thursday arrived shortly after 9 a.m. in a taxi minivan. A family of seven people of Haitian origin, the mother and father spoke French and Creole, while the younger of their five children spoke English. “You’ve lost your language!” said an RCMP officer who greeted one of the teenagers.

In a hurry to get across the border, the adults in the family offered just a few details. They had been living in the New York area but saw no future in the United States.

“We were facing a lot of problems in the United States. You are well aware of what they are,” said the father, who did not want to give his name.

The family made their way over the border along a small gravel path that has been built in recent months to prevent the ditch scramble that took place in the winter. Instead of sitting in their vehicles, the RCMP officers now have tents with tables, waiting areas and generators for electricity. Barricades have gone up to keep the public and media away.

A few hours after the first family crossed, Odelaire Baptiste, also of Haitian origin, arrived with his wife and young daughter. “It’s just getting nasty in the United States,” he said. “I want what’s best for my family and there’s nothing left for us there.”

Some 58,000 families of Haitian origin have been living in the United States under a temporary special status granted by the Obama administration following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The order, similar to one put in place in Canada, was a humanitarian measure to prevent deportations even if Haitians had arrived in the United States without legal status.

Faced with a surge of thousands of Haitian migrants last summer, the Obama administration started a crackdown authorizing immigration officials to immediately deport undocumented new arrivals.

In May, Mr. Trump’s administration announced the earthquake amnesty would end in January, 2018, when deportations would resume. (Canada’s special exemption ended last year.)

Marjorie Villefranche, director of the Maison d’Haïti support centre in Montreal, said there appears to be a “wind of panic” sowed by the Trump administration’s recent announcement. She said Creole social media has been very active with instructions for making the crossing.

“There’s no end to the badmouthing of immigrants in the United States, it’s become untenable,” said Voltaire Timoche, a young man who had travelled from Boston with a dozen other Haitians. “I had to do something.”

Amid the recent surge of Haitian arrivals, people from other countries continue to stream in along Roxham Road. A group of 13 Burundians from three families left a van and a small car nearly a kilometre from the border and walked with their luggage along pastures where horses grazed. While others were hesitant and shed a tear at the border, the Burundians dashed across with little hesitation before the RCMP officers were even ready to greet them.

Raed Alakhras, his wife and four very young children, hopped out of a taxi and put one of their smaller children in a stroller and strapped a baby carrier onto Mr. Alakhras’s chest for the youngest. The Syrian family travelled from Saudi Arabia to the United States last week, but their final destination was always Canada. Mr. Alakhras, an accountant, was working in Saudi Arabia on a contract that expired. He wasn’t going to be allowed to stay and he was not going back to Syria, he said.

“Because of the war in Syria, we needed to escape. It was really tough. It was very tough. My contract was finished and we had to leave. This was the only way,” he said.

With a report from Michelle Zilio

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