A family of asylum seekers from Columbia is met by RCMP officers after crossing the border at Roxham Road into Canada Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, in Champlain, N.Y. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Moments after a Greyhound bus from New York City pulls into a gas station bus stop in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Friday at 5:25 a.m., several minivan taxis swarm the vehicle.
About a dozen passengers descend from the bus — mostly single men, but also several couples and a family with three young daughters. They are greeted by four pushy taxi drivers.
The drivers begin to shout: “Frontera!” — the Spanish word for border — “Roxham Road! 60 dollars! Come! Come!”
As the passengers unload luggage from under the bus, the taxi drivers are relentless, beckoning them into their cars for the 30-minute drive to Roxham Road, the wooded route into Canada that has become an unofficial border crossing for tens of thousands of asylum seekers over the past several years.
Most of the bus passengers approached by The Canadian Press refused to talk; some shielded their faces. Many weren’t dressed for winter: they wore T-shirts, thin jackets, sneakers. One couple, however, were prepared, wearing warm winter jackets, tuques, gloves and boots.
One single man hopped into a cab. Asked where he was from, he said, “Haiti.”
Anxiously waiting for the taxi to depart, the man said his bus ticket was “purchased by a friend.”
Last week, reports said officials from New York City were providing free bus tickets to migrants heading north to claim asylum in Canada. New York City Mayor Eric Adams told Fox 5 his administration helps in the “re-ticketing process” for people who arrive in the city but want to go elsewhere.
In December, a total of 4,689 migrants entered the country through Quebec’s Roxham Road — more than all would-be refugees who arrived in Canada in 2021. Crossing the irregular border allows them to take advantage of a loophole in a deal between the United States and Canada.
The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement requires that asylum seekers make a refugee claim in the first “safe” country they reach. In practice, it means that border officials in Canada turn back would-be asylum seekers who show up at official checkpoints from the U.S. But they are not required to turn back asylum seekers who cross irregularly at places such as Roxham Road.
On average, about 100 migrants arrive daily at the Greyhound bus stop on their way to Roxham Road, according to Chad Provost, who runs his own shuttle service for migrants. On his business card is written “Roxham Road Border,” his WhatsApp number, and “24 hour service to and from the Canadian border. Asylum seekers and refugee safe transportation.”
Provost, standing at the bus station outside his minivan with three passengers inside, said he sometimes provides asylum seekers with free rides.
“A lot of them come from mess-up places. A lot of them just want a better life,” Provost said.
“There are some people I have driven for free. A lot of them don’t have any money. Some of these other drivers will just leave them here to freeze …. The gas station is closed at night.”
He says he doesn’t need to wrestle with the other taxi drivers to fill up his van — he gets his customers through word of mouth.
“My customers call me in advance to set up pickups from the bus stop to Roxham Road.”
For months, Quebec has been calling for the federal government — which controls Canada’s borders — to stop the flow or migrants, or at least ensure they are more equally distributed across the country after they arrive. The vast majority of people who enter irregularly into Canada cross into Quebec, putting a strain on the province’s social services.
The opposition Parti Québécois, meanwhile, has called for the provincial police to shut down Roxham Road entirely — but the party hasn’t said what it thinks should be done if asylum seekers choose another of the many forested routes into the country.
The province recently announced $3.5 million in aid for community organizations that have been struggling to provide food, clothing and housing for rising numbers of asylum seekers.
On Thursday evening, along the muddy trail leading up the border, a sign says “road closed.” A second sign a few metres away says, “Stop” in French. To the left, blue barrels act as pillars at the front of a makeshift entryway where asylum seekers line up and are met by RCMP agents.
One of those migrants is David Jesus Binto, 17, who arrived to Roxham Road in a taxi with another young man. Jesus Binto, wearing sneakers, jeans and an old-looking windbreaker over a T-shirt, says he and his friend are from Venezuela.
“We heard about (Roxham Road) through word of mouth. We left Venezuela for economic reasons,” he said in Spanish.
When asked if he had acquired the bus tickets for free, he replied that they had purchased the tickets themselves.
RCMP agents tell the migrants that if they cross the blue bins into Canada, they will be placed under arrest.
Jesus Binto, his friend and several others walk in single file toward the agents and into Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2023.
Marisela Amador, Plattsburgh