Refugees to Canada see support, protests

CHAMPLAIN — A white taxi pulls down a rural dead end road like so many others in this part of northern New York, stopping just shy of the Canadian border.

The driver gets out and helps the passenger with his bags like he always would, but this passenger is different. This is Roxham Road, and the passenger is illegally crossing into the Canadian province of Quebec with hopes of attaining refugee status.

He doesn’t want to talk to a journalist who asks to hear his story.

The remote road in the town of Champlain has become a highway for migrants heading north since the Trump administration took power and removed temporary protection status for Haitians, Salvadorians and Hondurans, along with putting in place other stringent immigration policies.

A January “PBS NewsHour” special on the crisis cited the Royal Canadian Mounted Police saying nearly 20,000 people illegally crossed in 2017.

“At great risk”

The refugees are allowed to pass through into Canada as a part of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which states that people crossing on foot will not be turned away until their case is heard.

Volunteer groups in the area continue to help the migrants on their journey, including Plattsburgh Cares and Adirondack Friends of Refugees and Immigrants, who joined together Sunday to host a public event in Whallonsburg to help spread awareness.

The documentary “Crossing Roxham Road” was screened at the Whallonsburg Grange, with discussion on the issue.

“People who are fleeing in this way are doing it at great risk to themselves and their families,” said Carole Slatkin, a member of Friends of Refugees, who also works with Plattsburgh Cares.

“They have their whole lives in a suitcase or two, they have fled thousands of miles, and they simply want to be in a situation where nobody wants to murder them,” she said of refugees escaping civil unrest in their native countries.

Many come from Nigeria and from Haiti.

Simply helping

For the last year and a half, volunteers, among them Slatkin, have provided support to thousands as they have come to the North Country, arriving by air, bus and train on their way to Canada.

Their aid is not combined with political activism.

“Our work is simply to try to provide factual information to these [migrants],” Slatkin said. “We do not give them any advice about where to go, or what to do, or how to do it. We are not lawyers; we are simply human beings wanting to help other human beings.”

Often it’s just a gesture — coats, hats and gloves distributed in the winter to those arriving at the northern end of Roxham Road without cold-weather gear. Or they may hand out snacks and, for the children, stuffed toys and coloring books.

Riot gear

Some in Quebec don’t welcome the refugees, however.

The far-right group Storm Alliance held a recent protest near the Lacolle, Quebec, border crossing at Highway 15 (I-87 in Champlain), objecting to the Canadian government’s acceptance of what the organization calls “illegal immigration,” according to a story in the Montreal Gazette.

The protest, the third since the numbers of immigrants ramped up after Trump’s election, brought out a crowd of about 250 that faced off with a smaller group of counter-protesters associated with Solidarity Across Borders.

“Police in riot gear kept the two groups about 200 meters apart,” the Gazette reported.

“My message is just that the government should do its job,” Cynthia Dupont of Longueuil told the Montreal newspaper.

“We are not against immigration at all. … All we want is for things to be equal for everyone. Other immigrants come across [the border] properly. Can we just have the same rules for everyone instead of having to clean up a big mess afterwards?”

Seeking safety

Some Plattsburgh Cares members have since received threatening messages from the Quebec side and have declined interviews, opting to keep a lower profile.

Slatkin said the harassment has not changed the way that the network of volunteer groups has worked, and the protests haven’t changed the refugees’ minds either.

“It’s seen as the best option,” she said about fleeing to Canada. “Mostly, they are people who are terrified and vulnerable. They are focused in an almost laser-like way in getting to safety.”

But most of all, they just want to live a semi-normal life.

“They don’t want a free handout, they don’t want free meals, they don’t want free anything,” Slatkin said. “They want to be able to work and support themselves and their children.”

Press-Republican Editor Suzanne Moore contributed to this report.