For Haitian migrants in limbo, calls to close Roxham Road clash with Canada’s friendly image

Of note:

Standing outside a migrant shelter near Mexico’s border with the U.S., Smyder Mesidor recounted a 10-country odyssey to get here. Driven out of Haiti by gang violence and Chile by a lack of work, the 30-year-old cook had been robbed by bandits and shaken down by customs officials as he walked across much of Latin America.

This road would end, he hoped, in either Florida or Quebec, both places where he has family.

So he reacted with a mix of bemusement and insouciance to word that Canadian politicians want to make it harder for migrants to enter by shutting down Roxham Road, the irregular border crossing south of Montreal.

Bemusement because such rhetoric seemed to clash with Canada’s immigrant-friendly image. Insouciance because, after what he’d been through, he was ready to brave the vagaries of the immigration system in a country that held out the hope of a better life.

“I don’t listen to that sort of talk,” Mr. Mesidor said. “Everyone speaks well of Canada.”

Among the thousands of Haitian migrants gathered here in Reynosa, a city of 700,000 across the Rio Bravo from Texas, there is persistent interest in reaching Canada, usually as a backup option if it proves too difficult to stay in the U.S. There is an even more persistent disregard for attempts by either country to stop people from coming.

Given the brutality and lack of economic opportunity back home, they don’t feel they have much choice but to push forward.

“We’re a little bit upset when we hear politicians say those things, because we don’t have a voice. We want to come and help them build their country,” said Kency Etienne, a 30-year-old teacher living in an encampment of several dozen tents on a concrete pad next to a Mexican government office. “But we don’t really think about it.”

Sitting nearby were Jean and Marie Petilme, who made the trek with their four children. Ms. Petilme is eight-months pregnant with a fifth. Hiking through Panama’s Darien jungle, Mr. Petilme said some migrants with them had their clothes stolen at gunpoint, others were swept away while fording a river and a few starved to death. Life hasn’t been much better in Mexico.

“We’ve been here for three months and we don’t get much to eat. We don’t have phones to fill out asylum applications,” said their daughter Miscalina, 12. “This is how we live.”

Mireille Joseph, 32, also travelled pregnant, including a five-day stretch on foot. She left her husband and two children behind in Haiti. Her hope is to get to safety and then work on having them join her. “I don’t really care at all what the politicians say. I want to come to either Canada or the U.S.,” she said.

The lifting of pandemic border restrictions, along with deteriorating economic and security conditions in Haiti and parts of Latin America, have driven a rise in northward migration this past year. In Haiti, armed gangs have tightened their control of the country, carrying out frequent kidnappings for ransom and blocking access to Port-au-Prince’s shipping terminals. The capital has suffered repeated shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

Under the Canada-United States Safe Third Country Agreement, migrants arriving in Canada from the U.S. are prohibited from making Canadian asylum claims, allowing for their swift deportation. But the rule only applies at official points of entry, leading asylum seekers to enter the country at irregular border crossings.The vast majority do so at Roxham Road near Plattsburgh, N.Y., because of its relative accessibility.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement to apply to the entire border. The White House, however, has shown little interest in changing the status quo. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been busing migrants from his state to northern cities such as New York, where Mayor Eric Adams has sent many of them on to the Canadian border.

The influx has led Quebec Premier François Legault and federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to ramp up pressure on Mr. Trudeau to stem the tide. “We as a country can close that border crossing. If we are a real country, we have borders,” Mr. Poilievre said last month.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr. Legault said that the province’s social services could not handle any more asylum seekers. He also warned that the new arrivals, who predominantly speak Haitian Creole or Spanish, would contribute to “the decline of French in Montreal.”

The number of people who made refugee claims after crossing at Roxham Road last year – almost 40,000 – is high by the standards of Canada, used to being geographically insulated from migration. In Mexico, it seems modest, a fraction of the more than 200,000 who tried to cross into the U.S. in December alone.

In Reynosa, the shelters are full, leaving many to live on the streets, in parks and in vacant lots. Hot, dusty and perpetually sunny even in late winter, the city feels a world away from the snow-covered forest surrounding Roxham Road. At one intersection near a large encampment, a dozen small businesses have sprung up under tarps strung between trees, with everyone from barbers to fruit sellers providing services to the migrants.

Over a charcoal fire, 19-year-old Natalie Joseph helped prepare gorditas. She has spent much of her life on the move: She left Haiti at the age of 5, she said, with her family settling in Chile. Two years ago, worried about her prospects for finding work, she decided to hit the road with two friends. “You can get the basic necessities in Chile but we wanted something better,” she said.

Across the street, Maricianne Pierre said she had been waiting in Reynosa 2½ months. “I’d love to go to Canada. There are possibilities of school, social programs, work. I’m stuck here right now,” said Ms. Pierre, 40.

Hector Silva, a pastor who runs two shelters in the city, said he wasn’t sure what to tell people who were setting their sights north. He only hoped that the leaders of wealthy countries wouldn’t shut anyone out.

“We have a lot of people asking, ‘How can we do it – if we get the paper from the U.S., how do we get all the way to Canada?’ We don’t know,” he said as a U.S. Border Patrol chopper buzzed overhead. “They’re not criminals. Many people are running for their lives. Leaving the country looking for a better life is not against the law.”

At another shelter a few blocks away, Ricot Picot and his wife watched their two small children play. Mr. Picot, 42, who was a teacher in Haiti, said everyone would be better off if the people with power to decide immigration policy allowed them to complete their journey. “I pray for them,” he said. “We don’t have anything – no jobs, no support. We are not achieving anything staying here.”

Source: For Haitian migrants in limbo, calls to close Roxham Road clash with Canada’s friendly image

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: