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Fearing U.S. rejection, asylum seekers flee to Canada

Canadian officials intercepted an unprecedented 20,000 people trying to enter the country in 2017, many of whom were fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries and saw more hope for asylum there than the U.S. PBS NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky talked to people on both sides of the border.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This week, the Trump administration rolled out its plan to overhaul America's immigration policies, asking $25 billion for border protection that includes a wall, tighter restrictions on legal immigration, and a path to citizenship for the so-called "Dreamers" – – the proposal divided those on both sides of the issue. Since Donald Trump took office, there has been inflammatory rhetoric toward non-Americans and increased enforcement of immigration laws. It has many in the immigrant and refugee communities on edge. An unprecedented number of people who came to the united states seeking asylum are now fleeing this country. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky brings us this report from both sides of the border.

  • ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE:

    You know if you cross here you will be arrested. Because it's an illegal way to enter Canada.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Over the past year thousands have fled the United States across this unofficial border crossing in Champlain New York leading to the Canadian Province of Quebec. So many have fled that some are even calling it the new Underground Railroad. This is the new reality in America, refugees and asylum seekers leaving the United States.

  • DESIRE DISABIRE:

    I'm leaving America because I was told I would be deported to Burundi. We fled Burundi when people wanted to kill us. I hope that in Canada I'll be protected and then I'll live in freedom.

  • ROYAL MOUNTED POLICE OFFICER:

    You understand if you cross here it's illegal. You're going to be arrested. Right?

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    The asylum seekers push ahead anyway because they say they actually want to be arrested. Most come from unstable countries in Africa and the Middle East and they know that they can only claim asylum in Canada after being taken into custody. Crispin Bayagwyze told us he made the decision to head to Canada after spending almost a year out on the streets of New York City.

  • CRISPIN BAYAGWYZE:

    I am Burundian. With the unrest in our country, I have managed to make it to America. It's been 11 months and I've had no help at all. Its difficult to eat and to find a place to sleep. I've filed papers with the immigration authorities and there was no follow-up. I realized that I would die on the street unless I find some other way.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Most get to the area by bus from New York City. Then local taxis swoop in to drive the asylum seekers to the border about 25 miles away. It's a routine that repeats itself several times a day. In the Obama Administration's last year in office, only about two and a half thousand people were arrested for illegally crossing the Canadian border, but in 2017 close to 20,000 fled the U.S. to make an asylum claim in Canada.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    It's going to be only America first.

  • ABC NEWS:

    The President's vulgar slur: Why are we having people from blank countries coming here?

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Donald Trump's tough rhetoric on migrants has been broadcast widely and asylum seekers have taken note. His Presidency has also ushered in an era of strict immigration controls. Rejections of those seeking asylum have been rising steadily since the Obama era — including those who entered the country legally. Since 2012 they've gone up by 17 percent. What's different under the Trump Administration is a dramatic increase in the number of arrests made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Following his inauguration they rose 42% over the preceding year. And concerns about arrest, say the refugees we met, have contributed to the climate of fear.

    Not everyone is happy to see them go.

  • JANET McFETRIDGE:

    Is that better?

  • CRISPIN:

    Yes.

  • JANET McFETRIDGE:

    Good.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Until recently, Janet McFetridge was a typical retiree living in the area. But ever since refugees started appearing shortly after Donald Trump's inauguration, she volunteers her time on American side of the border to make sure the travelers have clothes to keep them warm.

  • JANET McFETRIDGE:

    I'm part of a group of people concerned about the refugee population that's been passing through the area. I've just noticed that they are ill-prepared for the brutal winters that we have here in the north country. I have my car stocked with hats, gloves, mittens, scarves, coats. And when they climb out of the taxis, I assess what they might need.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Roxham Road is no different than dozens of other streets that dead end at the Canadian Border in this part of upstate New York, but the asylum seekers have turned this rural street into a busy crossing point.

  • JANET McFETRIDGE:

    I don't know how the word spread that that was the place to go, but I think in February they had about 400 people cross and then in August there were 5,000. If we're going to look at the real causes to it, it would be people afraid to stay in the United States, fear of deportation, um, fear of harassment.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    According to village lore, Janet's home was once part of the network that smuggled escaped slaves into Canada.

  • JANET McFETRIDGE:

    This house is locally known as one of the Underground Railroad houses. So, there was an active Underground Railroad line going right through this area up to Canada. Of course, we're only a couple of miles from the border. So, it makes sense.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    So what do you have here?

  • JANET McFETRIDGE:

    25 years ago we tore the floor back, we saw a big cistern it was huge, probably about six feet deep. Um, and we think that that is where the Underground Railroad passengers were probably kept when they were staying here.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    And it's right below our feet?

  • JANET McFETRIDGE:

    It would be right under there.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    It would have been the perfect hiding space.

  • JANET McFETRIDGE:

    It would have been perfect.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    In this part of the northeast of the United States the border with Canada is just a straight line that's largely unprotected. But further west it's the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes which is why so many of the refugees and asylum seekers channel to this part of the country to go to Canada. A couple of miles from the crossing used by most of the asylum seekers it looks like the border is unmanned, but just as we were about to leave, the Canadian patrol came to check up on us.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Has 2017 been an out of the ordinary year for your job?

  • OFFICER:

    What do you think?

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    I think the answer is yes. What do you think is causing so many people to go north to Canada?

  • OFFICER:

    On no, I won't answer question like that. I'm not here for that. We have some people for that.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    The person who handles the questions is a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who we met in Montreal, Quebec.

  • CONSTABLE ERIQUE GASSE:

    It's unusual for us having people walking toward us who want to be arrested. Because when we see them coming at the border we give them a warning saying guys, you are committing a crime, we will have to arrest you. And then when we say that they start walking toward us presenting their hands and they want to be arrested.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    But why they are leaving the United States, is that a question you are asking yourself?

  • CONSTABLE ERIQUE GASSE:

    I can not elaborate on that and we cannot speculate on that.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    We asked one of the recent arrivals the same question. John Orango is one of the tens of thousands who fled to Canada last year. After having fled post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, where he said he was targeted as an opposition activist, he spent nearly a decade in the U.S. waiting for his asylum case to be heard after coming into the country legally on a visitor's visa. Although he had an asylum hearing set for the summer of 2019, eleven months into the Trump Administration, he chose to flee.

  • JOHN ORANGO:

    When the new Administration came in it's like everything just changed. Living in America was terrible because now you don't know. You don't know whether the due process will be there. Whether you can be just deported like that. It is like something hanging on your neck. Every day you wake up, you don't know.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Now John spends his days reading in a library in Canada. He has a new asylum case pending here. He said he made the tough decision to flee the U.S. after three other asylum seekers he knew were suddenly deported before they got their day in court.

  • JOHN ORANGO:

    These are frightened people. These are people who have a lot of fear. These are people who are going through hell. Then you take the little hope they have away from them. People see Canada as a country where they can be welcomed and be subjected to due process.

  • PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU:

    The message is one is that Canada stands by. That if you're fleeing terror, persecution, and violence, well that makes you a refugee. We welcome refugees into this country.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    In Canada, asylum seekers are initially housed in shelters like this one at the northern tip of Montreal. But soon after, they are provided with monthly stipends they can use to rent their own apartments.

  • RACHEL SHUGART:

    So the backpacks should have everything that they need for lunch.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Rachel Shugart, another volunteer, is an English teacher who helps them settle in by donating school supplies and clothes.

  • RACHEL SHUGART:

    Lunch box? So you can take your lunch to school? OK. Bye, see you later.

  • RACHEL SHUGART:

    We've been watching the news. We know that America has been sort of turning inwards, so, I can't say that were super surprised to see something like this happening. But it really is shocking when you actually think about the numbers.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Despite the fact that the average asylum seeker gets more assistance in Canada than in the United States, not all of them will end up obtaining residency.

  • JUSTIN TRUDEAU, PRIME MINISTER, CANADA:

    There is a process to determine whether someone is a refugee. There are steps to go though.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    An ally of the Canadian Prime Minister in Parliament told us just how many claimants of Haitian origin got turned down last fall.

  • EMMANUEL DUBOURG, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT:

    Here in Canada it's like our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, diversity, immigration is a strength. But what I can say. I remember in September, only 10 percent of the Haitian group seeking for asylum was accepted. So it's important for them to know that they could be removed.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    Still, these days many say their chances of getting a fair hearing are better in Canada than back in the United States.

  • JANET McFETRIDGE:

    It's always been people streaming into this country and we've always had waves of immigrants coming into this country. I cannot think of another time in our history of the United States where people are leaving this country in such great numbers.

  • JOHN ORANGO:

    America is made of immigration, that's what it is. You cannot run away from its history, from its identity, no way. That is something that Americans are supposed to preserve not destroy.

  • SIMON OSTROVSKY:

    For now at least, John Orango isn't going to take any chances and is throwing his lot in with Canada like so many others who are no longer confident about their prospects in the United States.

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