Rejected by Canada, asylum seekers plot their next steps at a Plattsburgh gas station
(NCPR)-On a Thursday afternoon earlier this month, Wendy Ayotte and Grace Bubeck meet a family of five from Turkey at the Plattsburgh Mountain Mart.
The two women are volunteers with Bridges Not Borders, a Quebec-based refugee advocacy organization. They’re trying to connect the father, mother and their three daughters with a place to stay for the night.
The Turkish man — who doesn’t want to give his name because he and his family have an asylum claim in the United States — tells NCPR via Google Translate that they lost their home and relatives during an earthquake in Turkey. They traveled to Mexico, then through the U.S. to try to claim asylum in Canada because he has a cousin who lives there. But they were detained, then deported.
"We went to the Roxham (Road) gate and they let us in there," he says in Turkish. "They kept us for two days. They deported us even though we said we had no other place to stay."
A loophole for asylum seekers, now closed
For several years, Roxham Road in the northern Clinton County town of Champlain was the most popular unofficial crossing on the entire U.S.-Canada border. It was used by most of the more than 39,000 people who crossed into Quebec irregularly in 2022.
Roxham Road was a viable pathway to asylum because of a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada. The treaty requires asylum seekers to make their claims in the first of the two countries they arrive in. But for almost two decades, it only applied at official ports of entry, not to the swaths of border in between and unofficial crossings like Roxham Road.
Until last month, when the U.S. and Canada amended the agreement. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the changes during President Joe Biden’s visit to Ottawa on March 24.
"Both of our countries believe in safe, fair and orderly migration, refugee protection and border security," he said. "This is why we will now apply the Safe Third Country Agreement to asylum seekers who cross between official points of entry."
Canada is now detaining and deporting most people who try to cross unofficially — at Roxham Road and elsewhere — back to the U.S. Only those who qualify for one of four exceptions can stay.
'A desperate situation'
Now, many of the people turned back find themselves once again in Plattsburgh, at the Mountain Mart convenience store, where they first arrived by bus from New York City.
"We are in a desperate situation, but I don’t think the authorities fully understand this," the Turkish father tells NCPR. "They misunderstand us."
This man and his family are not the only asylum seekers sent back by Canada who come into the Mountain Mart this particular afternoon.
Among them are a man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who says he has a common-law wife in Canada, a family from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela who plan to make their way to a friend in New Jersey, and a Haitian man and a Congolese woman who linked up while they were in custody.
Ayotte helps translate during a conversation with the Congolese woman, who also doesn't want to be identified.
"She needs to get a place where she can rest, go to a hotel and recover a little bit before she can obviously see clearly what she should do next," Ayotte says.
In French, the woman says she has a sibling in Texas and, now, she has no choice but to apply for asylum in the United States. Her eyes well up with tears. She tells Ayotte she feels sad.
"And I said, 'Well, we feel very sad for you,'" Ayotte says.
Advocating for a coordinated response
Bubeck, the other volunteer, brings the Congolese woman and most of the other people she and Ayotte meet to a local hotel. She says it’s heartbreaking to see people get turned back from Canada and not understand why.
"They don’t have a plan, because their plan was to go to Canada and, you know, we can do a little bit to help them but they’re basically left to their own devices."
According to Bubeck, asylum seekers waiting out their claims in Canada have access to all kinds of support like housing, a social worker and education for their children.
That’s not a guarantee in the United States. When they’re sent back here, some still have money left over to buy a bus ticket or get food and a hotel room. Others, though, used everything they had to get to Canada and have nothing left.
Plattsburgh Cares President Kathy Sajor said her organization was inundated with calls when the Safe Third Country Agreement loophole was closed last month.
"Literally hundreds of people were in need of immediate care because they spend their last dollars to make this trip," she said. "And the word did not get out in time that Roxham Road was shutting down."
Sajor estimated that Plattsburgh Cares spent about a third of its funding to help around 60 people that first week. They've taken a step back from that direct assistance, but still help when they get calls. Plattsburgh Cares is also working with other community groups, trying to get helpful information posted at the Mountain Mart and advocating for a coordinated response at all levels of government.
"This is a countywide emergency that we need support with from our county, and from the state and from the federal government," Sajor said. "So we are appealing on all those levels to create a coordinated response so people don’t fall through the cracks."
Plattsburgh Cares addressed the Clinton County Legislature at its meeting last week and is set to meet with its Children and Family Services Committee next month. Sajor said they're also working with Assemblyman Billy Jones and reaching out to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's office.
Safety Net assistance for those who are eligible
The Clinton County Department of Social Services is also part of the effort to address the needs of people turned back by Canada. DSS Deputy Commissioner Rich Holcomb said the agency administers Safety Net programs, and migrants who are "known to immigration authorities" — such as those who have documentation showing they have to attend an immigration hearing — may be eligible.
According to Holcomb, since Clinton County is on a major route to Montreal, it’s not a new thing for undocumented people to seek Safety Net assistance.
"What is new is just the number of individuals presenting themselves," he said.
Holcomb said DSS used to see one or two applications from eligible non-U.S. citizens per quarter. Since the STCA changes went into effect, that number has grown to two to three per day. He said the county has a limited supply of emergency housing, and DSS primarily assists by providing transportation that gets people to other resources.
Holcomb said he thinks the agency can handle the current level of need from eligible migrants.
"It's new, but it's not," he said. "We've dealt with crises like this before, and we will just deal with it in the same fashion, which is why we have guidelines and rules and regulations. It kind of makes it easier to do this type of work that way."
Town supervisor: A federal issue requires a federal response
Holcomb said most of the migrants getting Safety Net assistance aren’t staying in the area, and it seems the number of people coming to Clinton County with the goal of crossing into Canada is decreasing.
The official numbers appear to support that theory. From December through February — the numbers for March prior to when the STCA changes went into effect are not yet available — Royal Canadian Mounted Police, on average, detained more than a thousand people crossing unofficially into Quebec each week. In the first two weeks after the changes were implemented, the Canadian Border Services Agency processed 222. Of those, 161 were sent back to the U.S.
Plattsburgh Town Supervisor Michael Cashman said asylum seekers’ presence in the community is a federal issue that requires a federal response, including resources for the state and county.
"It continues to be a crisis from the standpoint that a plan needs to be well-formulated that ... should there be a surge in numbers, that it can be upscaled rapidly," he said.
NCPR reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asking if the federal government is monitoring the impact of asylum seekers on Clinton County and the North Country, has a plan to inform or support the asylum seekers, or plans to provide assistance to the county and New York state. The agency did not respond.
NCPR also requested interviews with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand about the issue. Stefanik’s office did not respond, but Gillibrand’s sent a statement on her behalf.
“The situation in the North Country shows why it is critical that we pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship and would enable our country to responsibly manage the border," she said. Gillibrand said that includes improving the efficiency of immigration courts, ensuring access to legal services for asylum seekers and expediting work permits.
'This could happen to us'
For Ayotte, one of the volunteers at the Mountain Mart, the plight of asylum seekers is a lesson to all Canadians who take for granted safety and stability in their country.
"We have a great deal of difficulty imagining that this could happen to us, that the world could turn in such a way so that all of a sudden, we're the ones who have to flee, we're the ones who are not safe in our country and really have no choice but to leave."
Ayotte says her biggest fear now is that asylum seekers will use human traffickers to get into Canada through dangerous terrain. And as for those who are caught and turned back, she says it should be the government, not organizations like hers, who help them plot their next steps.
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