Whenever a bus arrives at the Greyhound station in Plattsburgh, New York, a small group of taxi drivers awaits to transport passengers on a half-hour journey to a snowy, dead-end dirt road.
There, at the Canadian border, refugees pour out of taxis or vans several times a day, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers warn them that if they cross, they will be arrested for illegal entry, which they do. Most are quickly released to seek asylum, where they can live and work freely while waiting for a decision.
“We have the hopes of everyone — to be successful and have a change of life,” Alejandro Cortez, a 25-year-old Colombian man, said last week as he exited a taxi at the end of Roxham Road in Champlain, New York. The town of about 6,000 is directly across the border from Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec.
Cortez joins a resurgence of migrants seeking asylum in Canada following a 20-month ban on asylum requests aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. Families are once again lugging suitcases and carrying children to the border across a remote, snow-covered ditch.
The decision by Canada to lift the ban on November 21 contrasts sharply with the approach taken by the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended indefinitely a similar restriction on the border with Mexico, which will enter its third year in March.
On Wednesday, a Justice Department attorney vehemently defended the ban in the face of pointed questions from federal appeals court judges about the scientific basis for such a broad anti-asylum policy.
From March 2020 to November, the United States deported nearly 1.5 million migrants under Title 42 authority, named after a 1944 public health law that the Trump and Biden administrations have used to deny migrants the right to seek asylum on the grounds that it will reduce the spread of the coronavirus. This accounts for roughly two out of every three border arrests or expulsions, with the majority involving single adults and some families. President Joe Biden has made unaccompanied minors exempt.
Fully vaccinated travelers have been able to enter the United States and Canada since November, but Canada has gone a step further by reintroducing a path to asylum. Cortez arrived in the United States five months ago on a tourist visa. He stated that he was unable to return to Colombia due to the violence and the disappearance of thousands of young men.
Around the time Trump was elected president, asylum seekers on the Canadian border began to appear at Roxham Road. It’s unclear how it became the preferred crossing point into Canada, but the migrants are taking advantage of a loophole in a 2002 agreement between the United States and Canada that states that people seeking asylum must apply in the first country they arrive in.
Migrants who travel to an official crossing, such as the one where Interstate 87 ends just east of Roxham Road, are returned to the United States and instructed to apply there. Those who arrive in Canada at a location other than a port of entry, such as Roxham Road, are permitted to remain and seek protection.
According to Canadian government statistics, nearly 60,000 people sought asylum after illegally crossing the border into Canada from February 2017 to September, many of whom arrived at Roxham Road, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Montreal.
More than 45,000 claims have been finalized, with nearly 24,300 approved, or nearly 54 percent. Another 17,000 claims were denied, and over 14,000 remain pending. Other claims have been dropped or withdrawn.
The number of asylum seekers at the Quebec border increased to nearly 2,800 in December. According to the statistics, this is an increase from 832 in November and 96 in October. Canada lifted the asylum ban with little fanfare or public outcry, possibly because the numbers are small in comparison to people crossing into the United States from Mexico.
The United Nations refugee agency, legal scholars, and advocates have all slammed Biden’s decision to maintain the Trump-era ban.
People from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are being returned to Mexico under the ban before being granted the right to seek asylum under US and international law. People from other countries are flown home without the opportunity to seek asylum.
Pence made the request after a top agency doctor in charge of such orders refused to comply with the directive, claiming that there was no valid public health reason for it to be issued.