Last year, around 39,000 refugees entered Canada through Roxham Road, an illegal border-crossing site between New York and Quebec, which requires an extremely dangerous journey on foot. This past January, almost 5,000 were reported to have crossed the site into the province. The situation has sparked heated debate at Parliament Hill in recent weeks about Quebec’s capacity to manage the refugee influx, and the federal government’s responsibility toward those who seek asylum and Canadian immigration policy more broadly.
The Third Safe Country Agreement (STCA), implemented in 2004, has led to the increased usage of illegal and unregulated border-crossing sites, such as Roxham Road. The bilateral agreement between Canada and the United States requires asylum seekers to make a claim in the first safe country they arrive in. This means that if an asylum seeker arrives in the United States first, they cannot make a claim in Canada under the STCA, and vice versa. In July of 2020, a Canadian federal court judge deemed the STCA unconstitutional, stating that Canada’s treatment of asylum seekers under the agreement is in direct violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In response to political pressure, Trudeau plans to “renegotiate” the STCA with U.S. President Biden later this month. However, the Canadian government must immediately and completely suspend the agreement if it intends to welcome migrants safely and equitably.
In late December 2022, Fritznel Richard, a 44-year-old Haitian man, died of hypothermia while trying to cross Roxham Road into the U.S. from Montreal. Richard had heard that Canada was more welcoming toward Haitian immigrants than its southern neighbour. After a year of living in the country, he and his wife had not been granted work permits, and instead were forced to return through Roxham Road, where he first entered Canada with his family. Along his route into the woods near the crossing, Richard, disoriented and freezing, called his wife who pleaded with him to call 911. Fearing his arrest and deportation to Haiti, Richard refused.
Last week, two months after Richard’s death, Jose Cervantes, a 45-year-old Mexican man, collapsed and died after crossing from Quebec to Vermont. Cervantes and Richard’s deaths expose the inhumanity of colonial immigration policies in both Canada and the United States. Asylum seekers entering each country often face lengthy processing times, detention, and deportation under the current immigration systems. The STCA only exacerbates exclusion across the Americas, creating confusion and uncertainty for refugees who must try to navigate complex,often closed systems by taking extremely dangerous and preventable risks.
The government’s refusal to address the STCA’s role at Roxham Road further manufactures this humanitarian crisis that is a symptom of inefficient, austere, and dehumanizing immigration policies. For several months, New York City has been paying the bus fares of asylum seekers hoping to enter Canada through upstate New York in order to discourage them from claiming refugee protection in the city. The exploitation of legal loopholes within the STCA to defend the interests of state and provincial leadership points to the disgraceful implications and dysfunctional framework that underlie the bilateral policy. Closing Roxham Road without addressing root causes would not solve the crisis, but would rather further alienate and endanger migrants in its attempt to deflect accountability.
Instead of offering tangible solutions, Conservative politicians have touted that closing Roxham Road would alleviate the problem of illegal immigration. The nature of the dialogue at Parliament Hill employs Roxham Road as the be-all and end-all of the migrant crisis, failing to assess the xenophobic policy that creates its danger. Yet, Quebec not only has the capacity to care for more refugees, but also has the need for more people. Legault’s government has long weaponized its relationship with the federal government in order to fulfill its xenophobic and racist agenda, as exemplified by its refusal to abide by federal standards for immigration intakes. The relationship between the federal and provincial governments, outlined by their respective responsibilities, has a history riddled with negligence.
Canada must abolish the STCA immediately, and Legault’s government must shed itself of its racist and unjustified immigration policy. The deaths of Cervantes and Richard are among many tragedies that underscore the urgency of addressing the migrant crisis and ensuring that the safety of asylum seekers are protected, as outlined by Canada’s very constitution.