As Canada Takes in Haitian Asylum-seekers, Uncertainty Persists

Canada’s government has partly filled in a ditch so pedestrians surging through an illegal border crossing from upstate New York into Quebec won’t hurt themselves. It has set up processing tents and is hiring people to transport and feed the newcomers.

Despite those welcoming gestures, Haitian asylum-seekers can’t get too comfortable, some immigration experts say.

“It’s false that Canada will provide asylum for those who have been crossing at the border,” said Jean-Ernest Pierre, a Haitian immigration attorney in Montreal. He said some Haitian migrants were misled by social media accounts recommending Canada as a more receptive alternative to the United States, in the midst of an immigration crackdown.  

Yet many Haitians would find it difficult to qualify as a refugee in Canada and claim political asylum, Pierre told VOA. Canadian immigration law requires that claimants prove “a well-founded fear of persecution” because of, say, race, religion or political or sexual orientation. Economic hardship isn’t enough.

Jean-Sebastien Boudreault, head of the Quebec Association of Immigration Lawyers, expanded on that point.

“Some of them may not be received as refugees, might not meet the requirements of refugee claimant as stated in Canadian law,” Boudreault said in an interview with CBC Radio-Canada. “… You have to have personal reasons not to be sent back.”

Indeed, Canada last year dropped its ban on deportations to Haiti, Reuters news service reported, citing government data. In 2016, “50.5 percent of Haitian refugee claimants were successful, compared to about 62 percent of all claimants.”  

Hoping for good luck

Luckson Merilien, 30, is gambling that Canada will grant him refugee status. He and wife Marie Michele Jean, 37, recently arrived in Montreal from New York and have a September 13 hearing on their asylum bid.

“I heard that Canada was open because I got all the news on Facebook,” Merilien told VOA.

The couple were among those swarming in recent months to a dead-end road near the town of Champlain in rural upstate New York. There, hundreds of people a day climb out of taxis, lugging baggage and often clutching children, to walk up to one kilometer to the Canadian border near Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle.

“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of people with Haitian citizenship who’ve been coming through at Roxham Road,” Brad Brant, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman, told VOA in a phone interview. “On Sunday, 400 people went through.” Two days later, “it was 300 and change.”  

IN PHOTOS: Asylum-seekers Flee US for Canada

If travelers cross the border illegally, Canadian authorities arrest and search them — and shuttle them to a growing tent city to begin processing them.

The surge in illegal border crossings into Canada corresponds with the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement in May that it would extend a humanitarian program for Haitians until January, not for a longer period sought by Port-au-Prince. The Obama administration had offered temporary protected status (TPS) to more than 50,000 Haitians displaced by a massive 2010 earthquake, extending it several times. TPS gives registrants the opportunity to obtain work permits.

Haiti’s minister of foreign affairs told VOA that “ongoing negotiations between Haitian and U.S. authorities” offered hope of a TPS extension beyond January. “The possibility is still there,” Antonio Rodrigue said in a phone call Thursday after traveling to Quebec to meet with Haitians and local government officials.  

This week, Canada’s military was completing construction of a 500-bed tent camp at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle. Montreal’s Olympic Stadium already is providing temporary housing for newcomers, and more are coming. As of Friday, roughly 700 people were at the border awaiting processing, which takes up to three days, Haiti’s Le National website reported, citing the Canada Border Services Agency.

‘In the hands of God’

The Haitian couple, Merilien and Jean, have found temporary housing in a property owned by a Haitian transplant.

They had taken a circuitous route stretching back several years. They first went to Brazil, in 2014. Merilien worked as a construction foreman for two years before jobs dried up. It took the couple four months to reach California. After 12 days at an immigration detention facility, they received temporary status and headed to New York.

Jean, who is trained as a secretary, told VOA she did not get a work permit and so couldn’t afford an attorney to help them seek permanent status. “I had a lot of court appointments,” Jean said, adding that she also received a paper with the word “deportation” on it.

Merilien said he’d heard of other Haitians who, “when they go to court, immigration officials seize them to deport them ultimately. I would not want that to happen to me.”  

So they left. His wife, asked whether she would willingly return to the United States or Haiti, said, “I don’t know. I can’t decide. All that is in the hands of God.”

‘Not a crime’

The U.S. Border Patrol’s Brant points out that “it is not a crime in the U.S. to enter Canada illegally” so his agency doesn’t try to stop northbound migrants. But, it “is concerned about securing the U.S. border and preventing people from entering the U.S.” without legal documentation and outside legal crossings.

The 300 agents in the Border Patrol’s Swanton sector are responsible for 475 kilometers of border, Brant said, “so it’s very difficult for us to apply any manpower and look for people that we could remove.”

Brant said the Border Patrol and its Canadian counterpart routinely share information, so each can help the other intercept lawbreakers. But, he added, the increase in migrants might be overwhelming the Canadians. “I don’t know if it is harming our security, because they can’t perform that partnership for us.”

VOA’s Carol Guensburg, Jacquelin Belizaire, Jean-Pierre Leroy and Serge Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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