A new wave of mostly Haitian migrants have illegally crossed into Quebec, seeking to benefit from a loophole in a treaty between the two countries that allows them to make a refugee claim in Canada if they do not arrive at a legal port of entry.
MONTREAL — The crowd of asylum-seekers who gathered the other day outside this city’s Olympic Stadium, their temporary home, hailed from across the globe. They had fled violence, poverty, persecution and, some say, President Donald Trump, often with only a suitcase to their name and a wisp of hope that Canada will allow them to stay.
They are part of a new surge of mostly Haitian migrants who have illegally crossed into Quebec by the hundreds every day over the past several weeks, walking over a ditch at the end of a dead-end road in upstate New York. They are seeking to benefit from a loophole in a treaty between the two countries that allows them to make a refugee claim in Canada if they do not arrive at a legal port of entry.
“I lost everything in Haiti, but now I’m afraid the U.S. will send me back,” said Jonathan Luima, 44, a Haitian migrant who arrived in the United States last year. “Canada is my only hope.”
This recent influx of asylum-seekers poses a political and diplomatic test for the government of Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, as it seeks to balance its publicly compassionate statements toward refugees with a strict immigration system.
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The Canadian government lifted a temporary protection policy for Haiti in 2014 and resumed deportations in March. And despite the widespread impression among the would-be immigrants that Canada is a haven, there is no guarantee they will be allowed to stay.
“Canada is portrayed as very welcoming, but we’re not open to every kind of immigrants,” said Mireille Paquet, an expert on immigration policy at Concordia University in Montreal. “Being poor is not a reason to get refugee protection.”
Nonetheless, refugee advocates say the government is essentially encouraging people to come into the country — and to bypass the treaty — by setting up processing centers at popular illegal crossing points and arranging for shelter.
The Canadian military announced Wednesday that it would build a camp for 500 asylum-seekers near the Quebec-U. S. border. Last week, the authorities opened the temporary housing center in the stadium, with space for 1,050 beds until September.
On a recent visit to the border crossing in Champlain, New York, taxicabs arrived at the dead end of Roxham Road practically every 15 minutes, stopping a few feet from a ditch that separates the United States and Canada. The passengers clutched their luggage, ignored a “no pedestrians” sign and made the short walk into Quebec.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers are supposed to warn those arriving here that they will be arrested for breaking international law by crossing illegally. But one officer instead greeted the migrants with a simple question: “Are you from Haiti?”
Some of the migrants said concerns about Trump’s immigration policies had convinced them that Canada was their only option. Deportations of unauthorized Haitian immigrants, though, were ordered to resume under the Obama administration.
Erloun Jean, 41, an unauthorized Haitian immigrant who moved to the United States 17 years ago, arrived at the border with her American-born son and daughter. She said that the fear of being deported from the United States had spurred her to head to Canada, and that she could not bear to leave her children behind, even though it meant taking them away from all they knew.
“They said, ‘Mommy, I love my school and friends,’ ” she said as they walked toward Canadian soil. “But I feel I don’t have a choice.”
Around 1,500 asylum-seekers crossed into Quebec in July, up from 781 in June, Quebec officials said. More than 200 are now arriving every day, according to the Canada Border Services Agency, which said many were American children accompanying their parents.
But Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, which represents Canadian border service agents, said agents had told him that the number of people crossing was much higher than the government’s figures.
Around 900 breakfast meals were distributed Tuesday to asylum-seekers held at the border crossing in the town of Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, he said, and agents have been brought in from across Canada to assist with processing refugee claims.
“In 18 years on the front line, I’ve never seen a crisis like this,” he said.
In May, the Trump administration announced that it planned to end a humanitarian program, Temporary Protected Status, that allowed 58,000 Haitians to remain in the United States after the devastating 2010 earthquake. That month, John F. Kelly, then the Homeland Security secretary and now the White House chief of staff, extended the program six more months, through January.
Haitian migrants and advocates in Montreal say the recent wave of asylum-seekers was spurred by false information spread on social media claiming that Canada is automatically accepting people who have been safeguarded by Temporary Protected Status in the United States.
Last year, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada accepted half of refugee claims made by Haitians, the agency said. And according to the Canada Border Services Agency, since Canada resumed deportations of Haitians in March, 19 Haitian citizens have been sent back to Haiti, and 277 to the United States under the treaty between the two countries.
Yet asylum-seekers still believe they have a better chance in Canada. That impression has been bolstered by the polite treatment they receive once they cross the border.
“When you arrive, you’re not detained as a prisoner,” said Marjorie Villefranche, director of Maison d’Haiti, a Haitian community organization in Montreal.
Although they are formally arrested, the migrants get temporary papers, a bus pass and a monthly government stipend of up to 900 Canadian dollars (about $705), which can help pay rent while they wait for their refugee claim hearing.