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Scripps News explores the lives of asylum seekers in Canada

Though policies have changed at the U.S.-Canada border, asylum seekers are still taking the risk and hoping for good outcomes.
Posted at 10:05 PM, Apr 06, 2023

After more than 24 hours, Victoria Manhamo and her 11-month-old son finally arrived at Roxham Road, an unofficial port of entry along the U.S.-Canada border.

SCRIPPS NEWS' AXEL TURCIOS: Victoria, how do you feel now that you're about to cross?

VICTORIA MANHAMO: A bit nervous. But yeah, let's see how it goes.

The mother and her son are about to cross the border into Canada to request asylum after traveling thousands of miles from Cape Town, South Africa to New York City on a visa.

Manhamo is trying to be reunited with her husband and two other children who are already in Canada. They claimed asylum before changes were made at the border.

"I am afraid that they might make it difficult, but I really need to get to my kids." Manhamo said.

For months, hundreds of migrants have been crossing into Canada from the United States using Roxham Road, but police are now warning anyone trying to get into Canada could be arrested and turned back to the United States.

This stems from the two countries amending their 20-year-old Safe Third Country Agreement pact. The accord originally applied only to official border crossings. Now it applies to the entire 3,145-mile land border between the countries.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in late March, "Both of our countries believe in safe, fair and orderly migration, refugee protection and border security."

But despite the changes in border policy, Scripps News found migrants were still crossing into Canada through the irregular port of entry of Roxham Road.

Victoria Manhamo with her daughter

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Manhamo and her son arrived in Plattsburgh, New York, on a bus from Manhattan. Then, along with other migrants, they headed toward Roxham Road in a van.

At the border, Canadian border agents shouted "If you cross in here, you will be arrested. Do you understand?" Despite the warning, the asylum seekers decided to cross, and were told they were "under arrest."

The shift in border policies includes some exceptions for unaccompanied minors, family members, those with documents, and those for whom it is in the "public interest" to accept. Manhamo qualifies under the family member category because her family made a claim for refugee status in Canada in early March.

In a statement, a spokesperson with the Government of Canada told Scripps News: "Irregular routes to Canada and other countries present very real dangers. We encourage individuals to claim asylum in the first safe country that they enter and to do so at a designated port of entry."

The slow-paced asylum process is forcing some asylum seekers in the U.S. to head to Canada, where the process is often handled faster.

Scripps News traveled to Montreal, where we met Venezuelan Yuneisi Medina and her two children, Matheu and Omar.

TURCIOS: I think what I'm curious about is that we have a record number of people trying to make it into the United States to seek asylum, to have a better life. Yet, you made it to the United States, and you decided to leave the country and seek asylum elsewhere. Why?

YUNEISI MEDINA: The reason is for best opportunity here for work, for good job, for health and education, the school for my kids.

Medina learned a little bit of English during her year in Tennessee, where she sold kettle corn off the streets. But not making enough money and seeing no progress on her case pushed her to Canada.

"We know very well that in the United States decades can pass, and you will never get the documents to legalize your status." Medina said. "It's very hard to get that there, so that was the main reason I moved here."

The family arrived in Montreal last December. They were housed at a hotel, and in two months, they received money to pay for an apartment.

Medina said in three months, her work permit was approved, and now she'll be able to find a job to pay for her rent. In the United States, a work permit could take up to two years.

In the U.S., the asylum success rate is significantly low. A report from Syracuse University finds that during former President Donald Trump's tenure, denial rates grew to a peak of 71% in 2020 but fell to 63% in 2021 under the Biden administration. It means that even now, less than 40% of submitted cases are approved.

A group of migrants waiting at border patrol

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Sam Watts — the CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, which runs homeless shelters in Montreal — said they have never seen this many asylum seekers coming into the network of services that serve the homeless population. He also said this influx of asylum seekers is stretching social services thin.

"This is a new phenomenon for us." Watts said. "Typically, on any given night, it could be up to 30 people that we are taking care of."

Watts says Welcome Hall Mission has identified distinct groups of migrants coming into Canada — people from South and Central America, Africa, and from Syria and Afghanistan. Scripps News saw Venezuelan and Afghan restaurants popping up across Montreal.

Back at Roxham Road on the Canadian side, Scripps News witnessed a group of asylum seekers turning themselves into Canadian border agents. 45 minutes after arriving on Canadian soil, the migrants were transferred to a detention center in Quebec.

"We are deeply, deeply shocked about the callous way the government has introduced this measure." Wendy Ayotte — a member of Bridges Not Borders, a grassroots refugee support group in southern Quebec — told Scripps News at the border. "We know because people are so desperate they will attempt to enter country of Canada through very unsafe means in the hands of smugglers who may abandon them if it's inconvenient, or they may strike out on their own, not knowing the terrain or the temperature."

We asked the Government of Canada specifically about the treatment of asylum seekers there, and received the following statement: "As it pertains to border security between ports of entry, such as Roxham Road, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is managing the interception of irregular arrivals and transferring these individuals to the nearest Canada Border Services Agency port of entry, where they ensure security screening and processing in coordination with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada." 

Medina, meanwhile, said she's concerned about how the changes at the border will affect other migrants.

"They are also coming to look for a better opportunity here," Medina said in Spanish.

Medina said she dreams of opening a restaurant in Canada to sell dishes from her home country Venezuela, and she also hopes to see both her children graduate with a college degree.

Scripps News confirmed that while Manhamo's asylum case hasn't been decided, she will be able to be reunited with her husband and other children Friday, April 7 in Canada.