Canada has largely tolerated their arrival. But with an increasingly close election on the horizon, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — a global figure of welcome for refugees — is signaling plans to crack down. And they’re asking the United States to help.
The irony is not lost on those who track immigration: The Trudeau government wants the United States to help tighten enforcement on Canada’s southern border, just as the Trump administration is pressing Mexico to tighten enforcement on the U.S. southern border.
It’s not clear the United States will agree. The Trump administration has sharply reduced U.S. refugee admissions and has tried to keep asylum seekers from entering from Mexico.
“I suspect that President Trump will be inclined to make Trudeau sweat over this,” said Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
Canada has made a formal request to the United States to amend a 15-year-old border treaty between the countries. A spokeswoman for the State Department declined to provide details, saying the department does not “discuss internal and interagency deliberations.”
The idea behind the treaty, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, is that Canada and the United States are equally open to refugees.
Under the terms of the deal, which took effect in 2004, asylum seekers who try to enter Canada at an official border crossing are sent back to the United States. But there’s a loophole: Those who cross the border at an unauthorized point of entry can proceed into Canada and file their claim.
One Canadian proposal would close that loophole: An asylum seeker who entered at an unofficial crossing would be escorted to an official port of entry and bounced back to the United States.
A spokeswoman for Bill Blair, Canada’s minister of border security and organized crime reduction, said he hopes a renegotiated treaty will “encourage people to cross at regular points of entry to maintain the security and the integrity of our borders.”
Spokeswoman Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux declined to outline what other proposals might be on the table.
“It would not be appropriate to negotiate the terms of a bilateral treaty through the media,” she said.
Separately, the treaty is being challenged in Canadian federal court. Three immigrant rights groups argue the United States should not be considered a “safe” country for refugees.
The Trudeau government, meanwhile, is proposing changes that would prevent individuals who have filed asylum claims in other countries from filing a claim in Canada.
The United States and Canada share the world’s longest undefended border. Most of its 5,500 miles run through rural farmland or forest.
Advocates for asylum seekers say changing the policy won’t stop them from walking across the long, mostly empty, frontier. It will simply encourage them to find more remote, more dangerous places to enter — possibly with the help of criminal networks.
“The main beneficiaries would be the smugglers,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, one of the groups challenging the agreement.
“We put our hope in the United States refusing to come to the table,” she said.
Trudeau has been an outspoken advocate for refugees. Shortly after his election in 2015, he went to Toronto Pearson International Airport to welcome the first of some 40,000 Syrian refugees admitted to Canada.
“Irregular” entries, as Canada calls them, have also increased. About 40,000 people have entered at Roxham Road and other unauthorized crossings in the last two years.
They are Haitians, Nigerians and, increasingly, Venezuelans and Colombians. Many enter the United States on tourist visas with plans to come to Roxham Road and cross into Canada.
If stopped by a police officer, they need only say that they intend to claim asylum, and they are allowed to pass. Asylum seekers who enter at an unauthorized crossing aren’t penalized for it.
But there has been a backlash. Critics have taken to calling irregular crossers “illegal” — echoing language used by immigration critics in the United States and Europe.
Opposition leader Andrew Scheer blames Trudeau for the increase in such crossings. The Conservative Party leader says those who enter at Roxham Road and similar crossings are hurting “legitimate refugees and immigrants.”
Canada holds its federal election in October. Trudeau and his Liberal Party, once considered favorites, have seen their approval ratings fall amid a leadership scandal.
Naomi Alboim, a former Ontario deputy minister for immigration, sees asylum seekers becoming a wedge issue in Canada.
“Immigration has become a highly politicized issue where it wasn’t really a partisan issue at all,” said Alboim, who teaches at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Advocates for immigrants have opposed renegotiating the treaty — especially now, while the Trump administration is tightening refugee rules, and the legal challenge remains undecided.
In the lawsuit, a woman from El Salvador says she and her daughters received rape and extortion threats from gang members back home but were turned away from Canada under the terms of the Safe Third Country Agreement.
Their lawyers argue that they would not, in fact, be safe in the United States. The case, which is still making its way through Canadian courts, includes filings from the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council of Churches.
Sean Rehaag, who teaches law at York University in Toronto, says the argument has merit.
“The reality is that there are some people who meet the refugee definition . . . in Canada, who would not meet the refugee definition as it's understood in the United States,” he said.
Canada is much more likely than the United States to accept claims based on sexual and domestic violence or gang persecution, Rehaag said. Asylum seekers are aware of these differences and plan accordingly.
Neighbors in this borderland say closing the trail won’t keep asylum seekers out. Instead, some warned, it will send them to more dangerous crossings.
Concern for their safety is largely why the Roxham Road crossing came to be in the first place.
A Ghanaian woman died of hypothermia in 2017 attempting to cross the border from remote Noyes, Minn., to Emerson, Manitoba, and two men lost fingers to frostbite crossing into the same province. The incidents raised public awareness of the risks of crossing.
Migrants used to take those risks in Upstate New York. Curtis Seymour, a taxi driver in Plattsburgh, N.Y., said he would drop would-be migrants at small roads or along railway tracks, often under the cover of darkness, so they could move north undetected.
“They knew there was railroad tracks up there that goes into Canada,” he said. “They'd get off at one of the little bars there or restaurant or whatever, and wait until dark.”
“It's crazy, you know. Some of them are scared right to death.”
Then Roxham Road became known as a safe crossing, and migrants mostly stopped sneaking through fields or dense woods.
“It seemed like the Canadians realized that they had to organize something to make there be a safe process,” Janet McFetridge said. The American woman drives to Roxham Road most days to help out.
If the unauthorized crossing is closed again, locals say, there are plenty of other places migrants could try — but they’d likely be more dangerous.
Martin Bechard lives on a small road outside Champlain that’s similar to Roxham Road: It nearly reaches the border, but there’s no official checkpoint.
Still, it’s under heavy surveillance. To cross undetected, he said, people would have to venture off paths — in winter, through deep snow.
Some of the land was recently clear-cut and is hard to navigate.
“You’d have broken legs in there,” he said. “It’s very rough terrain.”
Erica stepped out of a taxi at the end of Roxham Road and glanced up the slushy trail.
The Colombian woman, who declined to give her full name, said her 17-year-old daughter was raped in their home country, and they could not go back. She researched the refugee policies of different countries, and then journeyed north to the border.
“I chose Canada,” she said in Spanish.
She brought her 17-year-old and 5-year-old daughters and a plastic folder full of the documents they hope to use to build their asylum case. She said people back home were looking for them.
“We cannot go back to Colombia,” she said.
They dragged their suitcases north.