WILSON RING and ELLIOT SPAGAT
CHAMPLINE, New York (AP) — Whenever a bus arrives at the Greyhound station in Plattsburgh, New York, a small group of taxi drivers are waiting to take passengers on a half-hour ride down a snow-covered dead-end dirt road.
There, on the border with Canada, refugees fall out of taxis or vans several times a day, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police warn that they will be arrested for illegal entry if they cross the border, which they do. Most of them are soon released to receive asylum, live and work freely, awaiting a decision.
“We all have hopes to succeed and change lives,” Alejandro Cortez, a 25-year-old Colombian man, said as he exited a taxi last week at the end of Wroxham Road in Champlain, New York. The city of about 6,000 people is right across the border from Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec.
Cortez joins a renewed flow of migrants seeking asylum in Canada following a 20-month asylum ban imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Families are once again dragging their suitcases and carrying their children across the snow-covered ditch to the border.
Canada’s decision to lift the ban on Nov. 21 contrasts sharply with the approach in the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indefinitely extended a similar restriction on the border with Mexico, which will go into effect for a third year in March.
On Wednesday, a Justice Department attorney strongly defended a ban on thorny questions from federal appeals court judges about the scientific basis for such a far-reaching move against asylum.
The US expelled migrants nearly 1.5 million times between March 2020 and November under the so-called Section 42, named after the 1944 public health law that the Trump and Biden administrations used to prevent migrants from seeking asylum on the grounds that that they curb the spread of the coronavirus. This accounts for about two out of three arrests or deportations at the border, in most cases involving single adults and some families. Unaccompanied children were released under President Joe Biden.
Fully vaccinated travelers have been able to enter the US and Canada since November, but Canada has gone even further by restoring the route to asylum.
Cortes arrived in the United States on a tourist visa five months ago. He said he could not return to Colombia because of the violence and the disappearance of thousands of young people.
“It all hurts a lot,” he said. “We must flee our country.”
Asylum seekers at the Canadian border began showing up on Roxham Road around the time Trump became president. It’s not clear how it became Canada’s favorite destination, but migrants take advantage of a feature of a 2002 agreement between the US and Canada that states that asylum seekers must apply in the first country they arrive in.
Migrants who go to an official crossing — such as where Interstate 87 ends east of Roxham Road — are returned to the United States and asked to apply there. But those arriving in Canada at a non-port of entry, such as Wroxham Road, are allowed to stay and request protection.
About 60,000 people sought asylum after illegally crossing the border into Canada from February 2017 to September, many of them on Roxham Road, about 30 miles (50 km) south of Montreal, according to Canadian government statistics.
Of these, more than 45,000 requirements have been reviewed, almost 24,300, or almost 54%, have been approved. Another 17,000 claims have been dismissed and over 14,000 are still pending. Other claims have been denied or withdrawn.
In December, the number of asylum seekers at the border in Quebec jumped to nearly 2,800. According to statistics, this is more than 832 in November and 96 in October.
Canada lifted the asylum ban without much fanfare or public reaction, perhaps because the number of people is small compared to people entering the US from Mexico.
Biden’s decision to keep the Trump-era ban in place has been heavily criticized by the United Nations refugee agency, legal scholars and advocates.
Under the ban, people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are returning to Mexico before they are granted rights under US and international law to seek asylum. People from other countries are taken home with no chance of asylum.
The scientific arguments for Section 42 were met with skepticism from the start.
In 2020, the Associated Press reported that in March of that year, Vice President Mike Pence called CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield and told him to use the agency’s special legal powers to reduce the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the country.
Pence made the request after the agency’s chief medical officer, who oversees such orders, refused to comply with the directive, saying there was no good public health reason for issuing it.
Dr. Ann Schuhat, the CDC’s second top official when she resigned in May, told a congressional panel last year that “much of the evidence at the time did not support this policy proposal.”
Justice Department Attorney Sharon Swingle said on Wednesday the ban was based on scientific evidence and prevented disease in overcrowded Border Patrol detention facilities. Faced with constant interrogation by three-man panel judges in Washington, she admitted that there was no affidavit in the court records to explain the scientific basis of the order.
Hours after the Canadian government’s November changes, immigrants began arriving in large numbers on Wroxham Road, said Janet McPhethridge of Plattsburg Cares, a group that provides hats, mittens and scarves to people crossing the border in the dead of winter. She said people want to move while they can.
“There are definitely fears that it will suddenly close,” she said as she waited on Wroxham Road for the next batch of migrants.
A Canadian officer told the woman and her traveling companion, who had a child, in French that it was illegal to enter Canada here.
“If you cross here, you will be arrested,” he said.
“Yes, it’s not a problem. It’s not a problem,” the woman said as her companion began dragging the suitcase across the border.
Spagat reported from San Diego.