The sun was just beginning to set at the border between the United States and Canada when a blue taxi cab from the nearby town of Plattsburgh, New York, made its way down a dead end road toward a series of white tents.
The lone passenger was a single man who could have been in his mid-thirties. He seemed to be on a mission and, in broken English, indicated that he did not want to stop long enough for a longer interview.
But in the brief moments we spent with him as he removed his suitcases from the trunk we learned that he was originally from Yemen but fled that country a year ago. He’s been in the U.S. ever since, but this—he hoped—would be his last day on American soil.
“America don’t give me a chance to live,” he said.
He’s joining the record number of people—thousands, according to Canadian officials—to seek asylum and cross into the country at this dirt road through the woods. He told us he heard about the crossing on Facebook. Officials with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police confirmed that social media and stories that have posted to the web have been the biggest motivator and have led to this massive influx of refugees.
Most of the refugees that came over during the peak months of July and August at this illegal border crossing are originally from Haiti. Thousands of Haitians living in the U.S. were given protected status after the 2010 earthquake ravaged the island nation, but the Trump administration has indicated their status may coming to an end soon.
Maison d’Haïti is an organization in Montreal—about an hour’s drive north of the border-- dedicated to helping Haitians assimilate into Canada by teaching them language skills and offering legal assistance.
The group's general director Marjorie France says the only time she’s seen this kind of influx of Haitian refugees before was immediately following the earthquake. Villefranche estimates that half her time is now taken up helping people apply for asylum after coming here illegally from the US.
“The problem now is that all of a sudden they all arrive at the same place, at the same point,” Villefranche said. “The problem is how to welcome all of these people coming at the same time.”
But Villefranche says much of the word of mouth going around online is a bit misleading.
“Things were on the internet in [Haitian] Creole, saying it’s very easy to come to Montreal. You just cross the border, and it’s easy. So the word started to spill everywhere that it’s easy to come here. It’s not that easy.”
She said many people don’t even realize that Canada ended the protected status for Haitians long before 2017. But she attributes the influx of people to the fact that Canada’s official public statements—most notably warm words about refugees from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the heels of Donald Trump’s election—leads to the impression that it’s much easier to gain asylum in the nation to the north.
Those crossing at the illegal checkpoints in Canada know they will be arrested. But they’re not thrown in prison. They’re allowed 30 days at a shelter before being forced to find their own housing, with the help of organizations like Maison d’Haïti. They also will begin to receive social security checks.
But the process of gaining asylum can still take up to three years Villefranche said. She added that another major reason refugees are choosing to cross at illegal crossing points is that when a refugee coming from the U.S. asks for asylum at an official border checkpoint, they will likely be denied because of an existing agreement that the U.S. and Canada already have regarding refugees. And once you’re denied asylum by the Canadian government, you can never apply again.
Back at the border, the RCMP officer warns the man that if he crosses, he will be arrested. The fact that he had gotten this far on his journey already meant that he likely knew an arrest was in store. But the gravity of the situation still appeared to give him pause.
The two men stood facing each other for over two minutes on that one stretch of dirt, before the Yemeni man finally took the walk across the line.
“You are under arrest for illegally entering Canada,” the officer said.