It may seem paradoxical. Last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to issue an open invitation to refugees with a tweet declaring, “to those fleeing persecution, terror & war ... #WelcomeToCanada.” This year, his government is working hard to deter thousands of people who are walking over the U.S. border to seek asylum in Canada.
Canada has begun granting refugee status to fewer irregular border crossers—that is, people who walk into the country without going through a designated port of entry. Since President Donald Trump was elected, over 27,000 people have crossed into Canada overland. (By comparison, only 2,000 people did this in 2016.) In 2017, the country granted refugee status to 53 percent of such border crossers, but that number was down to 40 percent in the first three months of this year, Reuters reported. Did Trudeau change his mind about Canada’s welcoming posture in general? Or is something else at work here?
Canada has built a reputation for warmly embracing Syrians. But most of the newcomers are from elsewhere. At first, it was mostly Haitians in the U.S. who made the journey. Some said they were spooked by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and worried about losing the temporary residence status they’d been given in the U.S. following the 2010 earthquake in their native country. In recent months, Nigerians have become the most frequent border crossers. Many get visitor visas to come to the U.S., then take a bus or taxi to upstate New York, where they walk north into Quebec—straight into the arms of Canadian border guards waiting to arrest them.
The migrants are typically detained for a few hours and then bussed to an emergency shelter in Montreal, where they stay and work on their asylum applications. While they wait for their cases to be adjudicated, they can access healthcare and send their children to public school for free, just like any Canadian. And some citizens are not too thrilled about that.
“There’s a perception that Canada is being invaded,” said Wendy Ayotte, a member of Bridges Not Borders, a Quebec-based volunteer group that formed last summer to support the asylum seekers. “The perception is that these people are illegal and that they’re violating Canada’s borders and that they’re just queue jumpers trying to get freebies on welfare.”
Among those who crossed into Canada irregularly between February 2017 and March 2018 and have had their refugee claims finalized, Haitians were accepted at a rate of 9 percent, Nigerians at 34 percent, and Syrians at 84 percent. Ayotte said the needs of Haitians and Nigerians may be perceived as less legitimate than Syrians’. Syrians have been fleeing a war that has killed some half a million people and displaced millions more. The hardships that Haitians and Nigerians have endured are in some cases less obvious. But such comparisons between groups can create a false dichotomy, Ayotte said, with “one being bona fide refugees and the other not being bona fide.”
Canadian far-right groups like Storm Alliance and La Meute argue online that this situation amounts to an “invasion” of “illegals” at the border. They also promote this view in the streets—one street in particular. Roxham Road, where Quebec and New York meet, is the most popular crossing for people walking into Canada. Over the past month, a few Canadian politicians and commentators have issued calls to build a wall or fence there.
Last Saturday, Ayotte and her group gathered at Roxham Road to demonstrate in favor of open borders. Also present—as an observer, not a participant—was Faith Goldy, a Torontonian who identifies as a nationalist, a Catholic, and an independent journalist (she formerly worked for Rebel Media, a right-wing Canadian outlet, but was fired following her coverage of Charlottesville). Goldy is vehemently opposed to the overland influx of asylum seekers, partly because she believes Canada is undergoing a “demographic and spiritual replacement” that will see white people become a minority in the country within 25 years.
“I believe that demographics are destiny,” she told me. “And I believe that the Canadian populace should at the very least be asked who we want coming into our country—if for no other reason than we see what’s happening across Europe … It’s the emboldening of a new type of immigrant who seeks to change and indeed erase our history. And I, for one, won’t stand for that. I, for one, am proud of Canada’s European history and wish that Canada remains European.”
Critics have referred to Goldy as a member of the alt-right, a label she rejects. “Alt-right is an umbrella term, and it’s not specific enough for me,” she said, adding that she prefers “dissident-right.” She also rejects another label critics attach to her: racist. “The term ‘racist’ is a tool of oppression used by the left to shut up commonsense nationalists like myself,” she told me.
Some activists on the left, however, insist that the border protests against asylum-seekers are inflected by racism. “The Haitians and Nigerians have been featured in a lot of the media and I think there’s a pushback specifically about them because of anti-black racism,” said Moira Kilmainham, a member of Solidarity Across Borders, a volunteer group working with asylum seekers in Montreal. “Trying to depict these people as welfare bums and security threats and criminals is a racist attitude. Canadians hate when you say that we’re racist, but we are.”
Race politics takes on a particular cast in Quebec because of the “national question” in the province, where many are concerned about preserving francophone culture and language. Even though some of the Haitians walking over the border speak French, the pure-laine (literally “pure wool”) version of Quebec nationalism would still exclude them because their ancestry isn’t French-Canadian. The far-right French Canadians who periodically protest at Roxham Road have come bearing not only the Quebec flag but also the controversial Patriote flag used by the Quebec sovereignty movement.
“There’s a tendency to view people who appear at the border as more of a threat to sovereignty, because we didn’t choose them,” said Audrey Macklin, a professor at the University of Toronto who formerly served as a member of Canada’s Immigration and Refugees Board. “People and governments are more comfortable with the idea of resettling refugees that they get to choose and pre-screen. Right now, asylum-seekers are entering through irregular means, and that produces an image of disorder and chaos and illegality.”
But their entry is not illegal, Macklin said, for two reasons. First, the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, to which Canada is a signatory, contains a provision that has since also been incorporated into Canadian law. It states that should you enter through irregular means, your mode of entry won’t be held against you if you are found to be a refugee. That if is the tricky part, because it creates what Macklin called “an epistemic lag”: Canada can’t know until after your refugee claim has been adjudicated whether you entered irregularly due to desperate circumstances, in which case that mode of entry would be deemed legitimate.
Second, Canadian immigration law, unlike U.S. law, doesn’t say you’ve committed a breach if you didn’t enter at a designated port of entry. It says that should you enter in some other way, you must go without delay to a port of entry. And that’s precisely what the asylum seekers do: They get arrested by border guards, who promptly escort them to the nearest port of entry. So what rule are they breaking exactly?
“Crossing the Canadian border without reporting at a port of entry is an offense,” explained Beatrice Fenelon, a Canadian government spokesperson, “under the Customs Act.” Amazingly, the regulation that asylum seekers breach is one that’s more typically intended to ensure you pay duty on your cross-border shopping.
Fenelon also emphasized that Canada’s refugee system has two separate streams: the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program, for people seeking protection from outside Canada, and the In-Canada Asylum Program, for people making refugee claims from within the country. “When we talk about resettled refugees such as the Syrian resettlement initiative … refugees are screened abroad and undergo security and medical checks prior to being issued a visa to come to Canada,” she said. The asylum-seekers walking in overland have not been vetted, which may go some ways toward explaining why they’re meeting with a different reception. There’s also the fact that Canada’s refugee system is already backlogged and strained.
The country is not used to people showing up unannounced. “Canada has been insulated by geography from large numbers of asylum-seekers,” Macklin said, referring to the fact that the country’s only land border is with the U.S. Aside from the era of the Underground Railroad, she couldn’t think of a time when so many people moved across the Canadian border in a comparable way. But historical comparisons don’t make much sense here anyway, because up until recent years the U.S.-Canada border was more porous—until 2009, you didn’t even need a passport to cross it. “The border has become a thicker, harsher, meaner place.”
In fact, Macklin said, Canada is now particularly restrictive: “Canada expends more energy and resources than many people realize on deflecting potential asylum seekers. But because we do a lot of this remotely, extraterritorially, people don’t notice it—it doesn’t have the visible violence of border policing.”
One way for Canada to impose a restrictive attitude is to maintain a Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., stipulating that refugee claimants must seek status in the first safe country where they arrive—with the idea that most will never reach Canada as a result. Another way is to make it harder for people from specific countries—Nigeria, say—to get travel visas. Yet another way is to send immigration officials directly to a place like Nigeria, and have them dissuade people there from coming to Canada. Trudeau’s government has done all that, and also sent a member of parliament to Miami to discourage Haitians from coming.
This is not the first time Canada has used such deflection tactics. “During the 1990s, Canada was trying to prevent Roma asylum seekers from Hungary from coming,” Macklin said. “So it rented out billboards in Hungary to essentially say ‘Don’t come to Canada.’”
Such tactics contrast sharply with the views of most Canadians, who believe accepting immigrants and refugees is the best way their country can be a role model for others, according to Canada’s World Survey, a public opinion poll released last month.
Even as Canadians clash over whether to make their southern border more or less porous, it’s clear both camps agree on one thing: They’re angry at Justin Trudeau. Goldy said he has welcomed in too many refugees by “executive order,” without consulting the citizens to make sure that’s what they want. Kilmainham said he has welcomed in too few refugees given the promises he made during his election campaign, and she called his actions “hypocritical.” Meanwhile, the government spokesperson said that at Quebec’s popular crossing, about 75 people continue to walk into Canada each day.