The way to Roxham Road: A woman's journey toward a more hopeful future

Asylum seekers are shown being processed at the RCMP's temporary post at the irregular border crossing at the end of Roxham Road, on the Canada-U.S. border, in the early hours of March 16. (Craig Desson/CBC - image credit)
Asylum seekers are shown being processed at the RCMP's temporary post at the irregular border crossing at the end of Roxham Road, on the Canada-U.S. border, in the early hours of March 16. (Craig Desson/CBC - image credit)

Grace, 30, never wanted to leave her native South Africa. But here she was, leaning against a bus window as it drove out of New York City for Plattsburgh, N.Y., on the night of March 15.

She was struggling with a bad headache, the product of jet lag from two back-to-back flights. It also didn't help that she had been crying ever since she left her husband and three children behind. CBC News is concealing Grace's identity because she fears for their safety back home.

Once in Plattsburgh, Grace paid $50 US for a taxi to take her even deeper upstate to the place all of her internet searches have pointed to: Roxham Road, on the Canadian border just south of Montreal. If everything works out, her family will eventually join her there. About a dozen people on the bus had the same plan.

"This must be the most difficult thing I've ever had to do. But I just know, if I don't do it, chances are I will use the money that I have and it will never happen," Grace said.

At the time, she didn't know just how narrow the window was to cross into Canada at Roxham Road.

On Friday, the federal government announced it had reached a deal with the United States and was closing the irregular border crossing at midnight.

For years, a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement allowed migrants to claim refugee status from within Canada if they crossed through an unofficial point of entry like Roxham Road.

'I left my kids. I feel so guilty'

Xenophobic attitudes and rampant corruption are what pushed Grace, who's married to a Zimbabwean, to leave South Africa.

"People would come and threaten us and intimidate us, and it has even passed on to our kids. It's very scary," she said. "We see things happen to people every day. You can go and report this. Nothing happens."

Grace remembered one night being ripped from her sleep by strangers who were throwing what she thought were rocks onto her house's zinc roof. They yelled at her family to leave, that they were overcrowding the country.

Another time, her husband was attacked after a young boy cried to his father that a foreigner was assaulting him. Grace's husband, she said, had only tried to reprimand the boy for talking rudely to a senior.

"It could have really gone worse than that," she said. "I know situations where people lose their lives over small arguments like that."

Grace said she's had a goal for years to relocate her family, but she didn't have a plan until she started reading about Roxham Road on the internet last summer.

Irregular border crossings into Quebec

The number of people who have crossed into Canada at Roxham Road ramped up as international travel resumed at the end of 2021, compared with the numbers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last year, about 44,000 people have made their way into Quebec via the irregular border crossing, which isn't an official point of entry.

Grace began saving up for her trip in June 2022. Across the globe, her house sits nearly empty except for a bed, a fridge and a couple of televisions. She sold almost everything to gather the 40,000 South African rands — about $3,000 Cdn — to get her to this point. The family would have needed two more houses worth of items to sell in order to uproot everyone.

"This is not an ideal situation, trust," Grace said. "I left my kids. I feel so guilty."

Economic woes, family ties

Grace had considered both Ireland and the United States before setting her sights on Canada.

"Canada is more welcoming, and it's more family oriented, in my opinion. I could be wrong. I could be wrong, but that's what I found when I was doing the research," she said.

Leonardo Uzcategui has heard this rationale before. He runs a non-profit organization called Fundavenyc, which helps Venezuelan asylum seekers settle in New York City.

Craig Desson/CBC
Craig Desson/CBC

"For a family, New York ... it's not the best place. So maybe going to Canada in a quiet place where you're not living in a room, you're living maybe in an apartment or in a house, it's going to be better. So I understand that," he said.

Uzcategui said he has also heard about refugee claims being processed faster north of the border, which he called a major motivator for some people.

It's why Ernesto Leon decided to make the trip to Canada with his wife and daughter. They sat behind Grace on the bus.

Due to the poor state of the economy, the family left Peru for the U.S., where they spent eight months before taking their chances in Canada. A cousin of Leon's had successfully immigrated there, and he said she got her work permit within a month.

"It's another culture, another language. Aside from English, they also speak French. What we want is the best for our children," he said as his daughter clutched a Minnie Mouse doll almost as big as her.

Leon is a big man who spoke confidently, but it was evident he didn't really know what was going on. He didn't even recognize the name "Roxham Road." He just knew he had to get there.

Asylum seekers arrested after crossing

The bus arrived in Plattsburgh on March 16 at about 4:30 a.m., after a seven-hour journey. The bus station was little more than a gas station next to a Dunkin' Donuts and a convenience store. Two vans with the words "Roxham Road" and "Border" greeted those who disembarked.

After a 30-minute drive, the group of about a dozen people made it to Roxham Road.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

There were already asylum seekers lined up on the other side of the border waiting to be processed at the RCMP's temporary post. Grace's heart was racing. Leon was calmer.

"I've heard it's a little better. People are treated differently," Leon said. The last time he was at a border, he had to cross  a river before being detained for eight days.

The group that had just travelled together from New York City stood huddled a couple of metres from the border. An RCMP officer waited on the other side. He was talking to a man who had just crossed over and was trying to explain that his family wanted to come to Canada, gesturing to the larger group.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

"OK, this is Canada," the officer said matter-of-factly. He wasn't about to prompt anyone to cross illegally, and yet the group stared at them — uncertainty written all over their faces, as though waiting for instructions.

"I am very nervous now," Grace said moments before. "I don't know what is going to happen from here."

A couple of minutes of uncertainty passed. Eventually, one by one, the asylum seekers crossed the border — and, one by one, they were each told they were under arrest. Grace, clutching her pink suitcase, joined the line on the Canadian side of the border.

She said she didn't want to be there because she loves South Africa, but she felt she had to do this for her family.

Craig Desson/CBC
Craig Desson/CBC

"I pray it works, I pray my kids are safe. I feel I've lived my life, but my children, they don't deserve all of this. They don't deserve any of this," she said. " If things could just work out for them, I think I'd be OK."

An hour later, the sun rose.

Roxham Road was closed eight days later. If things go her way and her refugee claim is approved, Grace's family will eventually be able to fly into Canada.