What happens after Roxham Road
Jeffrey is just under two years old and has traveled to more countries than most people have seen in their lifetime.
He lies on his mother’s lap with his eyes wide open and hardly makes a sound. He only cries when she puts him down.
His mother is Guenda, the wife of Fritznel Richard, the 44-year-old man whose frozen body was found more than a week after he attempted to enter the United States on foot on December 23.
They are sitting on a couch at Guenda’s younger sister’s home in Naples, Florida. On a table next to them is a framed photograph of Richard taken at their wedding.
CBC has agreed not to use Guenda’s surname due to her precarious immigration status and fear of being deported to Haiti.
“I lost a good husband, a great partner. He was always there for us,” she says.
It’s the day after Richard’s family in Naples held a small private funeral for him.
Frantz André, who works for asylum seekers in Montreal, traveled here to take Richard’s ashes to Guenda. He agreed to have CBC follow him to Florida for a radio documentary about Richard’s life.
André has been helping asylum seekers in Montreal for free for more than seven years. He did not know Richard when she was alive, but managed to get Guenda’s phone number after her husband’s death and offered to help answer police questions and organize a funeral for him in Montreal.
He – and Guenda – hope Richard can be a catalyst for change and push Canada to improve support for migrants.
7 days in the Darién Gap
Guenda recounts the life she shared with Richard and the journeys they made in search of stability and security.
“My life changed when I met Richard. He is someone who always gives you strength and always gave his best,” says Guenda. “He would say, ‘We’re going to do that. It’s going to work out, we’re going to get out of this situation. Don’t get discouraged. Cheer up.'”
Just a year and a half ago, they walked the Darién Gap with Jeffrey, who was then two months old.
The Darién Gap is a treacherous 100-kilometer stretch of jungle on the Colombia-Panama border where hundreds of thousands of migrants like Richard and his family have fled poverty and unrest in South and Central America, which has worsened during the pandemic became .
Many die along the way, drown in fast-flowing rivers, or are killed by bandits who kidnap and rape for ransom.
It took the family seven days to get through this. “Beaucoup de souffrance,» much suffering, says Guenda in French.
Traveling from Brazil to North America, they traveled by bus and on foot through about a dozen countries.
Their journey is similar to that of a growing number of displaced people around the world and the risks people must take – often just to get to richer countries where political debates about immigration and inefficient systems have created additional hostilities for migrants.
Richard had heard that Canada was more welcoming to Haitians, that they were less likely to be deported to Haiti, and that it was easier to get a residency permit as an asylum seeker than in the United States
He thought their fights would end here, but Guenda says that doesn’t happen.
“It wasn’t easy at all. I got sick Jeffrey [suffered] and the cold…” she says. After months of living in Montreal, Richard and Guenda still hadn’t received work permits. They depended on financial support from the government, which did not cover the cost of their rent and food.
In October, Guenda hired a smuggler to help her and Jeffrey get back to the States so they could rejoin her sister in Florida.
Richard decided to stay in Montreal hoping to get his work permit and a job soon. By December, after more than a year in the country, he still hadn’t received it. He was lonely and missed his wife and child. He wanted to see her for Christmas.
He hired the same man who took him to the border near Roxham Road, the popular irregular border crossing between New York State and the Montérégie region of Quebec south of Montreal, where he, Guenda and Jeffrey first came to Canada.
When a storm was forecast so bad experts dubbed it a “bomb cyclone,” Richard attempted to change the date with a smuggler he’d hired to help get it across.
Guenda says the smuggler refused for some reason.
“That’s what this person does,” she says. “It’s a job for her.”
Richard called her, disoriented, cold and alone, and said, “I’m dying, I love you.” She asked him to call 911, but he was too afraid of being arrested and deported to Haiti.
Guenda says all she wants for the future is to be granted temporary protective status in the US and bring her and Richard’s other son, 11-year-old Dawins, over from Haiti.
Dawins is recovering from leg surgery and is still unaware that his father has passed away. Guenda is still struggling to find the right timing — the right words — amid her own painful grief.
Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees Canada says it introduced a faster system for asylum seekers to apply for work permits in November.
Guenda says that if Richard could have worked, “it would have saved him from taking this path and dying.”
Relatives of Richard say his search for a home began in his youth after his mother managed to get a green card in the US
A few years later, after his older brother was diagnosed with cancer and then recovered from him but was mistreated by their father, Richard began acting. He hung out with the wrong people.
He was in the car of someone who had a gun when they were pulled over. Officers found the gun and Richard was deported to Haiti. Determined to find a way out of Haiti, Richard learned English and then several other languages.
He and Guenda moved to the Dominican Republic, then to Brazil – where Jeffrey was born – and Richard worked in customer service for American companies.
Guada, an older cousin, will speak at his funeral in Florida in late January.
On a table next to her is a framed picture of Richard, along with his urn surrounded by flowers.
“Fritznel was tough. He was resilient and relentless,” she says. “If you look at his eyes and all the pain he must have gone through on his life journey, he must have felt very lonely most of the time.”
CBC has also agreed not to use Guada’s last name. She worries that her family’s irregular immigration status could affect her work. She moved to the US in the 1980s but says she was like a big sister to Richard.
“The Canadian Dream”
While André, the Montreal attorney, is in Naples with Richard’s family, he hears from contacts in Miami’s Little Haiti, who tell him that US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas will be holding a meeting on Haitian migrants.
Before that, we go to the Catholic Church across the street, where migrants are queuing for help with their applications for temporary protection status in the US
André talks to the priest, Father Youry Jules, who says that many of the migrants he meets talk about Canada.
“They see that Canada is a land of opportunity that can welcome us, but when they get there they’re mostly humiliated,” says Jules.
Introducing himself, André says that he thinks Canada is a more welcoming place than the US, but that “there are rumors that as soon as you come in you get a residency permit and that’s just not true.”
“I’m not talking to you to encourage you. It’s your decision, but if you want information, call me,” he says, handing over his business card.
A man named Alix Antoine wakes up. He has heard a lot about Canada but is unsure if he will qualify for a residency permit.
“We are looking for a place where we can live a better life, where we can move freely,” Antoine says in an interview afterwards. “Survive. Survive with dignity.”
Antoine called André just a few minutes after he left.
André says American border policies have pushed people north towards a new “Canadian dream”, but “Canada isn’t what it was because of the economy”. Still, he thinks it’s safer for migrants than the states.
“The rhetoric in the States and even Canada puts them in a situation where they don’t know what to do anymore. They feel like The Walking Dead, over land where they’re never welcome,” he says.
“I want to give them hope.”
Journalists are not allowed at the meeting, but André says he confronted Mayorkas about what happened to Richard.
He says the United States is complicit in Richard’s fate because of its role in the Safe Third Country Agreement, a deal between Canada and the US that forces migrants to seek asylum in the first of the two countries they end up in unless , they find their way through unofficial crossroads – like Roxham Road.
Mayorkas is in Little Haiti to discuss a new program designed to stop migrants from Haiti, Venezuela and Nicaragua from crossing the US border irregularly.
The program makes it impossible to apply for asylum once they have landed in the country unless they have applied with a sponsor and been previously accepted.
André fears that Canada will follow a similar policy. He says Richard’s death shows what can happen when migrants are forced to take increasingly dangerous risks.
“Fritznel Richard will make a difference, I’m convinced of that,” André. “He’s more present now than when he was physical because he was invisible as an asylum seeker. Now he is visible and I am here. I’m Fritznel Richard. I’m Fritznel Richard.”