A five-mile stretch of dirt road linking New York state to the Canadian province of Quebec is expected to be a focal point of Joe Biden’s first official visit to Canada later this week, as Justin Trudeau seeks to slow a surge in asylum claims amid criticism that his government is failing refugees.
Last year nearly 40,000 people entered Canada at Roxham Road, an informal crossing in the forests of upstate New York that has become a political flashpoint in recent years.
The surge, prompted by a mix of Canadian bureaucratic delays and bilateral agreements with the United States, has caught the governing Liberals flat-footed – and left a majority of claimants without proper government documentation as they wait for their cases to work through the system. Figures from the federal government showed the vast majority of arrivals via Roxham have yet to be issued work permits.
“Asylum seekers on our borders is not something that Canada typically deals with,” said Abdulla Daoud, executive director of the Refugee Centre in Montreal. “This is in many ways a new issue. And while there’s been an uptick, there’s no denying that, we’ve seen that Canada’s immigration infrastructure can handle an increase in population – but the asylum system wasn’t ever built to accommodate this sort of issue.”
Most of the asylum seekers are fleeing conflict, poverty and political repression in Latin America, but others have arrived from as far as Afghanistan, Yemen and Turkey.
In February, Quebec’s premier, François Legault, demanded that Trudeau’s government resettle refugee claimants in other provinces amid concerns that Quebec’s “capacity to take care of the asylum seekers” had been exceeded. The Conservative party leader, Pierre Poilievre, has also called on the prime minister to close the Roxham Road crossing.
Trudeau’s government has started moving refugees out of Quebec and into neighbouring provinces, but the prime minister has pushed back against the calls to shutter the crossing.
Trudeau said last month: “The challenge is not to say, ‘Oh, we should close it.’ The challenge is, how to close it, how to make sure that people aren’t choosing to cross irregularly into Canada, to protect the integrity of our immigration system but also stay true to the values that we have.”
Calls for an overhaul have also been spurred by a string of fatalities among people making irregular crossings in freezing winter weather.
For decades, asylum claims could be made at any legal port of entry in Canada, where they would then be processed and claimants admitted if their claim was approved. That changed in 2004, when Ottawa successfully lobbied for the passage of the Safe Third Country Agreement, which meant that asylum seekers were required to make claims in the country where they first arrived.
“Canada is geographically remote, and has a very restrictive visa regime. The only land border we share is with the United States. And so this was part of a longstanding effort by Canada to reduce the number of asylum seekers it would receive,” said Audrey Macklin, a law professor at the University of Toronto. “Like all countries, it wants fewer refugees.”
The agreement, which Macklin called an “aberration” of the global refugee convention, applied to land-based ports of entry – but not to irregular or unofficial crossings, including Roxham Road.
And so in recent years, a rural county road has become the funnel for refugees attempting to cross the 5,500-mile border.
In January 2023, Royal Canadian Mounted Police intercepted more than 5,000 asylum seekers along the road, the highest since the government started tracking the influx that began in 2017, following the election of President Donald Trump.
“What they’re doing is not unlawful. It’s not unlawful under international law for somebody who is a refugee to enter through irregular means,” said Macklin. “And it’s not unlawful under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. They’re not doing anything illegal under immigration law.”
Ottawa is widely expected to raise the Safe Third Country Agreement when Biden meets with Trudeau on Thursday, but officials have not yet signalled what sort of modifications, if any, they might seek.
The immigration minister, Sean Fraser, who met his US counterpart this week, has publicly spoken about his government’s plans to “modernize” the agreement – but has provided few details of what that might mean.
“If the federal government wants to make the Safe Third Country Agreement apply at Roxham Road, it would be a job-creation program for smugglers,” said Macklin. “And if he means extending across the entire imagined border of Canada and the United States, then he’s kind of just indulging in a fantasy of incalculable financial cost.”
Daoud said changes can be made that wouldn’t require upsetting the “status quo” of the system. For example, Canada could allow certain groups, such as Haitians and Venezuelans, to make asylum claims at ports of entry where the bulk of the government’s staffing and immigration processing resources are allocated.
“We know the demographics and geographical issues,” he said. “With the right fixes, we would make this a non-issue almost overnight.”
Even if the government is unwilling to propose changes or exemptions, a looming decision from the country’s top court could force dramatic changes.
In recent years, asylum seekers and rights groups have challenged the constitutionality of the agreement. A ruling is expected in the coming months and a decision against the government could force it to abandon the Safe Third Country Agreement.
But Macklin, who previously served as a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board, said Canadian officials can do more. The country recently helped resettle more than 150,000 Ukrainians at short notice with little strain on the immigration system.
“The numbers at Roxham Road are a small fraction of that we can manage – if we decide that we want to manage it in an orderly, organized way,” she said. “If we don’t do that, then we create and perpetuate the idea that this is a crisis and has to be managed through exceptional means.
“It’s not a crisis. We can manage it, but we have to choose to manage it.”