Omer Malik knew he had to slip into Canada to avoid President Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
But the 19-year-old native of Afghanistan needed a friend to help guide him. He found that friend in a 66-year-old former French teacher, one of a number of people here in the Adirondack region who believe it’s their duty to comfort and support those fleeing Trump’s vision for America.
As Malik dragged his suitcase toward the Canadian border, Janet McFetridge gave him two bags of potato chips, a knit hat and — what she considers her most important gift — a hug. Then she yelled across the thicket of cattails and flowering grasses that separated them from Quebec.
“Hello,” she called, alerting a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer that Malik was about to illegally cross the border to claim asylum. “We got someone here.”
McFetridge is part of a loosely assembled network of progressive activists, faith leaders and taxi drivers who have mobilized to help undocumented immigrants cross the northern border. To some, they’re selfless do-gooders ushering people to better lives. To others, they’re perpetuating a problem that has debilitated Canada’s immigration system.
For centuries, residents note, towns in the Champlain Valley have been a path to security, serving as an escape route for people fleeing slavery, the Vietnam War draft and Central American wars. Now, when it comes to immigration, this GOP-friendly part of New York has become a hub of the resistance.
“We view this as our Underground Railroad,” said Carole Slatkin, an advocate who has helped immigrants traveling through Essex, N.Y., a town that was part of a major route for enslaved people. “While no one is being flogged, and no one is being sold, there is this sort of modern-day equivalent of feeling like people are in danger.”
Advocates say they try not to give direct advice to the immigrants, instead helping them find a place to rest or supplies to ease their journey. But the image of U.S. citizens supporting immigrants who make the trip is controversial in Canada, threatening long-standing, cross-border camaraderie.
“To me, it’s just being abusive,” said Paul Viau, mayor of the township of Hemmingford, a Canadian farming community along the border. “There are people who sympathize with [the immigrants] and people who have a harder time with it. But no one appreciates that someone would pack them up and bring them to the border at an illegal crossing.”
Last year, as the Trump administration began enacting stricter policies against undocumented immigrants, Canada processed more than 50,000 asylum claims. That is more than double the claims made in 2016, according to Canadian government statistics.
Many of those immigrants have been crossing at unauthorized locations, such as here on Roxham Road.
Although the flow of asylum seekers into many Canadian provinces has slowed this year, there has been no letup into Quebec. From January through June, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police apprehended 10,261 people crossing the border illegally there. Last year, the police apprehended 18,836 people.
The arrivals have sparked a backlash from segments of Canada’s political system. In late June, Toronto Mayor John Tory warned that the influx of asylum seekers had overwhelmed that city’s ability to care for them.
“We have a problem, and we need help,” Tory told Canadian reporters in a plea for more emergency housing.
In Quebec, the leader of its nationalist party, Jean-François Lisée, has suggested constructing a wall along the southern border of the province.
Roxham Road, a narrow paved road lined by horse farms and marshes, has served as a path recently for Palestinians, Colombians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Haitians, Zimbabweans and Pakistanis, among others.
After one taxi pulled up here, Fiyori Mesfin struggled to carry a car seat, stroller and two backpacks as she crossed the border with her two children, ages 1 and 3.
Mesfin, 32, is a single mother from Eritrea who had been living for the past four years in Las Vegas. Her children are U.S. citizens.
After she was recently denied asylum in the United States, Mesfin began to fear she could be deported or even separated from her children. So she flew to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and then boarded a Greyhound bus for Plattsburgh, N.Y.
“So now I am here just hoping it gets better,” Mesfin said as she pushed the stroller, while trying to manage her toddler, toward Canada.
Saman Modarage also had taken the bus.
Modarage is a Sri Lankan native who fled his country in 2005 during a civil war. He had settled in suburban Washington and worked at a liquor store in Prince George’s County.
But Modarage, 51, decided to try to flee Maryland for Canada after he heard that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was raiding and auditing Maryland convenience stores searching for undocumented employees.
In a recent statement, ICE noted that it has opened nearly 6,100 worksite investigations and made more than 1,500 arrests from October through July — more than five times the number of arrests made in the previous fiscal year.
“Donald Trump’s administration has pushed me here,” said Modarage, who arrived in Plattsburgh with two sets of clothing and $300. “All immigrants are under threat. . . . If I got deported, it would kill me.”
The flow of people illegally crossing into Canada from the United States has continued despite an agreement in 2002 between the countries that is designed to manage refugee movements.
The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement requires migrants to make an asylum claim in the first safe country they reach, unless they are minors or have family ties at their next destination. The agreement means many of those who try to cross from the United States into Canada at an official border station are turned away.
But a loophole permits asylum claims to be made by individuals who enter Canada covertly, such as here on Roxham Road, about five miles west of the interstate. Crossing illegally at out-of-the-way sites has become the preferred method for undocumented immigrants in the United States as well as those in the country legally who see their chance of getting asylum or permanent residency dimming.
Many take a bus from New York City to Plattsburgh, where waiting taxis transport them about 30 miles to the end of Roxham Road, a 100-yard dirt path into Canada.
Federal officers stationed on the other side of the border immediately arrest those who cross illegally. But if the crossers have proper identification, no criminal history and are not otherwise considered a security threat, most are released within 72 hours, said Sylvain Thibault, a coordinator at Project Refugee, a Montreal-based humanitarian group.
They then stay in a shelter, or with family or friends, while they await their hearing. They are also eligible for public assistance, health care and an opportunity to apply for a Canadian work permit.
Canadian law dictates asylum hearings should be held within 60 days.
But Paul Clarke, executive director of the Action Refugees Montreal, an advocacy group, said the government is so overwhelmed, it’s now taking up to two years for cases to be heard.
Last year, Canadian courts granted asylum in about 60 percent of cases, Clarke said. Canadian authorities have warned that far fewer of the most recent arrivals are expected to qualify.
McFetridge, the teacher turned activist, has lived in Champlain about five miles from the border for three decades. But she never paid much attention to it until after Trump’s election, when she was looking for ways to convert her agony over his win into meaningful action.
In March 2017, when she began hearing about an influx of immigrants into Canada, she decided to drive up to Roxham Road. The sight of people dragging luggage — and children — down “an isolated, lonely, country road” shook her.
“I was just horrified that people were leaving the United States, where we have this idea of being a beacon of hope, for another country,” she recalled. “At that point, I said, we can do something here, and I can at least give them a kind word, and recognize them as people by saying, ‘I am sorry you feel you have to do this.’ ”
McFetridge began showing up almost daily.
Last winter, after realizing many asylum seekers were arriving without warm clothes, she began handing out coats and gloves.
As the weather warmed, she transitioned her efforts to handing out snacks and toys to the children. McFetridge said she tries to avoid giving direct advice or material support to the refugees to avoid conflict with Canadian immigration authorities. But, she said, it’s important for her to be there so people know they are not alone and can cross with a sense of safety.
“I can tell them they are not going to be shot,” she said. “They’ve asked me: ‘Do I have to run? Are the police going to shoot me?’ ”
McFetridge, who said she encounters dozens of asylum seekers on some days, keeps a log of those she encounters.
“. . . Woman arrived by plane. 25 years in the US. Leaving son behind, degree in finance . . . Father stayed in taxi, sobbing as family left . . . Young adult — said she was bisexual & would be killed if returned to home country . . .”
Although McFetridge is the most visible advocate, a broad array of community and faith organizations have also mobilized throughout the Champlain Valley to assist people who pass through.
One organization that was formed to support refugees, Plattsburgh Cares, prints informational pamphlets about how to safely reach Roxham Road. Amid complaints from Canadian officials, the group stopped distributing the pamphlets this spring. It now relies on “word of mouth” to get information out, said Slatkin, 73, the woman in Essex.
As they continue their efforts, the advocates draw comparisons to the stealth network of abolitionists used to help guide people who escaped to Canada in the 19th century.
Of the estimated 100,000 enslaved people who fled the American South between 1810 and 1850, about 40,000 made it to Canada after being hidden in houses and churches along the way, said Don Papson, president of the North Country Underground Railroad Museum in Keeseville, N.Y.
One of the major routes there ran through Champlain, about two blocks from McFetridge’s house, he noted. Today, before asylum seekers arrive on Roxham Road, they must travel down North Star Road, believed to be named after the star that people who escaped slavery used to guide them toward freedom.
Martha Swan, executive director of John Brown Lives, a humanitarian group based in Westport, N.Y., and named after the 19th-century abolitionist, said the region’s “inspiring history” is what is causing more people to “summon the courage” to support refugees. She said interest in helping the refugees has grown considerably this summer because of outrage over Trump administration’s policy of separating detained undocumented immigrants from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“You don’t have to do anything extraordinary, necessarily, but you do have to bear witness and help where you can,” said Swann, who recently helped a Nigerian woman make the trip from Los Angeles to the northern border.
At the First Presbyterian Church in Plattsburgh, the congregation decided to convert a Sunday school room into a temporary shelter for use by asylum seekers who may become stranded.
Stuart Voss, chairman of the church’s refugee committee, said the church is reviving a role it played in the late 1980s when thousands of migrants from Central America traveled through Upstate New York to reach Canada.
Many spent an extended period of time in Plattsburgh — where they were fed, counseled and housed by local churches — while they waited for Canada to consider their asylum requests.
But Voss, 75, said church members now believe they must be far more discreet in their efforts than they were 30 years ago.
“We decided it wasn’t the same situation as in 1986 to 1987 because there was no ICE back then, and it was just Border Patrol,” said Voss, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which was created in 2003 in wake of 9/11. “Customs used to tell us, ‘Okay, as long as they are staying with you, you can help them out.’ ”
In a statement, the Canadian police declined to comment on Americans’ role in helping the refugees but said it added resources to the border and is confident it can meet the security and humanitarian challenge.
In a separate statement, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said it is “working to identify trends and patterns” of cross-border movement into Canada.
Here along the border, the taxi drivers say they will continue transporting asylum seekers to the border.
Although the drivers say they got into the business to make money — they charge $50 to $75 in fares for a one-way trip from the bus station — they say they now see it as their duty to give advice and to comfort and calm passengers.
“They are scared. . . . They will ask me if American Border Patrol is going to be here, and how far they have to walk,” driver Troy Gelwicks said after he recently dropped a Haitian family off at Roxham Road. “I say, ‘You just have to walk 10 steps, and Canadian Border Patrol is very friendly.’ ”
As she waved goodbye to Malik, McFetridge said she is also banking that Canada’s government will continue to be more sympathetic than the Trump administration.
“But you have to be realistic,” McFetridge added. “It’s not going to work out for everybody.”