LISA DESAI: Much of the four thousand mile American border with Canada is wide open and unsecured. In the first three months of this year, a steady stream of immigrants from all over the world braved the bitter cold to reach a country where they believe there’s less risk of detention and deportation.
Just north of Minnesota and North Dakota lies the Canadian province of Manitoba. The town of Emerson is a main entry point. An hour’s drive north is the provincial capital, Winnipeg, a city of 700-thousand. That’s where I met this woman from Somalia.
For her safety, we agreed to shield her face and call her “Nasra.” She settled in Minneapolis on a U.S. medical visa to get treatment for her six-year-old autistic son. Her family is part of a minority clan persecuted in Somalia’s civil war.
NASRA: I faced a lot of problems in Somalia. During the war, my father and my brother were attacked, and my mother and I endured so much pain — we left and never went back.
LISA DESAI: After President Trump listed Somalia as one of the countries whose citizens would be blocked from entering the U.S. Nasra decided that although she was legal, it wasn’t safe to stay.
NASRA: I heard that they were going to arrest people and take them back to Somalia and that they were going into people’s homes and they were going to separate families, mothers from children.
LISA DESAI: What would happen if you were deported back to Somalia?
NASRA: If I go back to Somalia I won’t stand a chance there, I would be killed.
LISA DESAI: In February, she left Minneapolis and became one of nearly 1,000 migrants, according to the Canadian Government, to cross from the U.S. into Canada this year. She paid a driver to take her and her son most of the way.
NASRA: We walked for hours, the snow was falling, we couldn’t see. It was cold, it was dark and if it wasn’t for God we would have died.
LISA DESAI: Under Canadian law, people like Nasra, who cross the border illegally, are arrested and taken in for a background check. If they don’t have a criminal record, they are often released within 24 hours. They’re appointed a government lawyer to represent them in their asylum hearing which usually takes place in two months. They are also connected with nonprofits that provide food and housing.
YASMIN ALI: Well, these are donations that’s been given to the organization for the newcomers.
LISA DESAI: Yasmin Ali heads up the Canadian Women Muslim Institute, a Winnipeg nonprofit that helps refugees like Nasra. Since January, Ali says she’s received a surge in clients crossing from the U.S.
YASMIN ALI: We help them with finding places to live, with finding, getting places, things to fill their apartment, so they have because when they come they are very limited in income.
LISA DESAI: With only a few paid staff members and no government funds, the institute relies on volunteers and donations.
YASMIN ALI: It’s very hard to be wandering the world with families and children and not know where you’re going to live, not know you’re going to be settled down and be safe. So they’re just looking for a safe place where they can raise their families and live.
LISA DESAI: Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council is another nonprofit that provides settlement and legal services to refugees and asylum seekers in Winnipeg.
RITA CHAHAL: Hi, I just wanted to say hi. I’m Rita. And your name is?
LISA DESAI: Rita Chahal is the Executive Director.
RITA CHAHAL: Just in this month alone we’ve had four unaccompanied minors.
LISA DESAI: Chahal says the people seeking asylum come from all over the world, not just the countries included in President’s Trump’s proposed travel ban. They are coming from places like Bangladesh, China, Germany.
RITA CHAHAL: We’ve certainly seen a number of them in the last little while, last few weeks coming from Central America, from Guatemala, Nicaragua.
LISA DESAI: One of those undocumented migrants from Honduras is Alexanco. He says he left for the U.S. 5 years ago because drug cartels had threatened to kill him. Last month he left Florida for Canada with his wife and baby.
LISA DESAI: Why did you decide to move to Canada?
ALEXANCO: We started to become very afraid, because every morning and every day we watched the news, we watched many friends with their kids. People who were deported, separated from their families, and that was one of my biggest fears that we had about living in the United States.
LISA DESAI: Fears Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been trying to calm, even during a recent visit to the White House.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: We continue to pursue our policies of openness towards immigration, refugees, without compromising security
LISA DESAI: That policy is now being criticized in Emerson.
GREG JANZEN: This is the actual international border right in front of us.
LISA DESAI:Emerson Mayor Greg Janzen says the the border crossings are putting a strain on the town’s less than 700 residents. Volunteer firefighters rescued migrants stuck in snowstorms, and since last November, half the town’s medical calls have been to help asylum seekers.
GREG JANZEN: That is concerning for us in Emerson and the Canadians just because we’re not detaining anyone, we’re not punishing anyone for breaking the law. So our border right now is at risk of kind of being a joke.
LISA DESAI: Currently, under The SAFE Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, refugees must apply for asylum in the first country they enter. Refugees who’ve already applied in the U.S. and present themselves at an official Canadian border crossing are supposed to be turned away. But anyone who sneaks across the Canadian border has the right to apply for asylum.
LISA DESAI: A poll last month found Canadian support for welcoming refugees is slipping. 48 percent said Canada should send these migrants back to the U.S. 36 percent said Canada should accept them.
LISA DESAI: The illegal border crossings are starting to wear thin on some Emerson residents.
JACQUELYN REIMER: I think Trudeau should have to come and spent two weeks here in Emerson in one of the houses and see how his wife and children feel with these people crossing the border and banging on his door and windows at all hours of the night.
DALE PELKIE: If they’re already settled in the States, why can’t they go back to the States? Right? I don’t understand it. I really don’t, but I hope something gets done soon so that we can live in peace again.
LISA DESAI: One of the volunteers at the Canadian Women Muslim Institute in Winnipeg is Ahmed Osaa, a refugee who fled the United States, and is originally from the West African nation of Ghana. Osaa is gay, and in Ghana, homosexuality is a crime.
LISA DESAI: Why did you decide to leave Ghana?
AHMED OSAA: I was afraid for my life and I knew if I stayed maybe somebody, one day somebody might kill me. And I don’t want to die now.
LISA DESAI: Osaa left Ghana in 2013 for Ecuador, but it rejected his asylum claim. Three years later, he made it to Mexico and paid smugglers to take him to Brownsville, Texas, where he turned himself into the Border Patrol.
AHMED OSAA: I presented myself and told them, ‘Oh, I’m here to seek asylum.’ They started chaining my hand, my waist, and my legs. Then I started crying.
LISA DESAI: Osaa spent six months in an immigration detention center in Pennsylvania, and his asylum claim was denied. Released from custody but subject to a deportation order, Osaa made his way to Minneapolis to live with a friend.
LISA DESAI: Osaa planned his trip to Canada right after President Trump was elected — fearing even then he’d be forcibly sent back to Ghana.
AHMED OSAA: If I’m sent back to Ghana for example I can even go to jail, and I don’t want to go to jail.
LISA DESAI: Osaa crossed the border and Canada granted him asylum, making him a legal resident. He’s now receives a government stipend equivalent to 540 American dollars a month until he receives a work permit.
AHMED OSSA: I would say in Canada I’m treated with dignity and respect but in the United States no I wasn’t, I wasn’t treated with dignity. Now I have been accepted as a refugee in Canada. I’m OK now. I’m happy to be part of the Canadian people.
LISA DESAI: Nasra, the Somali refugee who snuck across the border with her son two months ago, is waiting for their asylum hearing.
LISA DESAI: So what’s your hope now for your future for you and your son in Canada?
NASRA: What I hope for is to live in a place of peace. Where I can be healthy, a place where there is no war, no fighting, no killing, God willing, I pray for that.