A smile and arrest welcome asylum seekers to Canada

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How the Safe Third Country Agreement is changing lives on both sides of the border

Roxham Road is about as nondescript as any corner of the United States could be. Yet the country lane lined with trailer homes that dead-ends at the Quebec-New York border is an easily recognized thoroughfare for asylum seekers leaving the uncertainty of Donald Trump's America for the welcoming unknown of Canada.

It's at the end of Roxham Road that RCMP officers greet people entering the country illegally with a smile, handcuffs at the ready.

It's this spot, with the possible exception of the frozen fields outside Emerson, Man., that's come to symbolize the plight of those who no longer feel welcome in the U.S. but know they cannot enter Canada through the front door.

Figures provided by the Canadian government show that in the first two months of the year, the RCMP intercepted 677 asylum seekers crossing into Quebec alone, according to The Canadian Press. Including numbers in Manitoba, B.C. and Saskatchewan brings the total to 1,134, compared to 2,464 in all of 2016, the Immigration Department said.

On a sunny Thursday in March a U.S. Border Patrol agent sits in her vehicle halfway up the road. The agency says it has no power to stop anyone who is legally in the U.S. from leaving.

On the other side of the swampy ditch and solar-powered stand of lights and cameras that marks the border, a pair of RCMP vehicles idle.

The Mounties are a constant presence at this spot, near Hemmingford, Que., about 70 kilometres south of Montreal. Day and night, seven days a week.

That presence is no deterrent to those determined to cross.

"We give them a warning that if you pass the border we are going to arrest you," says RCMP spokesman Const. Erique Gasse. "This is not very common in our job, but when we say that, they start walking toward us!"

The whole world is watching

Images of those arrests have been beamed around the world. Mounties gently carrying children, Mounties assisting women struggling with their possessions once they make it over the ditch.

Gasse shakes his head as he describes how the force has given interviews about the asylum seekers to broadcast crews from Norway and Australia, to the BBC and China state television.

"They tell us they are interested in the story because of the way we treat them when they cross the border. For us, it's a crime. We arrest them. We do our police work. But in other parts of the world they aren't as warm as here in Canada."

That warmth, the generosity of Canada's refugee system, is a source of pride to many Canadians. It's also a growing source of debate.

Just this week Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary said he'd use the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure people who "sneak across the border" can't claim charter protections, and won't have access to benefits.

Not to be outdone, fellow leadership contender Maxime Bernier vowed he'd deploy the military to border points like Roxham Road.

The easy explanation is that both candidates, in their bids to win the Conservative race in May, are intent on exploiting the asylum seekers.

The more politically charged suggestion might be that they're tapping into a strain of anger inside Canada that's readily accessible on social media, that these asylum seekers — many of whom are in the U.S. legally — are taking advantage of a loophole in the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement that allows them to make a refugee claim in Canada just as long as they don't enter the country at an official port of entry.

Montreal immigration lawyer Eric Taillefer represents many of the asylum seekers who've made the journey down Roxham Road. His office in Old Montreal is filled with young men awaiting their date with immigration officials who will decide whether they stay or go.

"What the agreement does, it forces people to enter Canada by any means that they can find, whether it be hiding in a car, crossing through the woods or finding any other kind of method of crossing."

Others have warned that suspending the agreement would only add to the number of refugees arriving in Canada.

For some residents of this northern corner of New York, an area that voted for Hillary Clinton in last year's presidential election, the exodus is disturbing. They consider it a sign the U.S. dream of equal opportunity for all, the country's reputation as a beacon of hope around the world, is being diminished.

Jo Ellen Miano is one of the founders of Plattsburgh Cares, a recently formed coalition of social groups, faith-based organizations and others in the city about 25 kilometres south of the border, who are trying to counter the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.

"Our hearts are really broken that this has tarnished who we feel we still are," she says. "The best thing we can do is to articulate that we are determined to hang on to the values that are fundamental to the United States of America."

U.S. 'founded by immigrants'

Group members are writing members of Congress. They've also written to the Canada Border Services Agency and the Montreal YMCA to offer help.

"Somehow, this country seems to have lost sight that it was founded by immigrants,'' another of the Plattsburgh Cares founders, Carole Slatkin, says.

"We want to find out who is coming up here so we can offer food. Offer clothing, To do whatever practical things we can do."

What they can't do, both women acknowledge, is give those terrified of being deported any assurance that things will be all right. That the Trump administration's hard line on immigration will soften.

Out on Roxham Road the asylum seekers aren't waiting to find out. Instead, they are betting Canada will give them new and better lives.