Why record asylum seekers are crossing the US border

By Anna Mehler Paperny and Ted Hesson

CHAMPLAIN, New York and WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Bookseller Zulema Diaz fled her native Peru after being kidnapped, beaten and robbed in hopes of finding safety in the United States. Instead, she said she experienced homelessness and sexual harassment while working on a hospital cleaning team.

When Diaz, 46, heard that New York City was giving away free bus tickets, she said she got on a bus to Plattsburgh, a town near the Canadian border, and then took a cab to the irregular intersection at Roxham Road to get around enter Canada and submit an application for asylum there.

A sharp surge in asylum seekers entering Canada via unofficial crossings — including many whose bus fares were paid for by New York City and aid organizations — is increasing pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reach an agreement with President Joe Biden to close the entire land border for most asylum seekers.

Canadian Immigration Secretary Sean Fraser discussed irregular migration with US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in Washington, DC this week. Trudeau said he will raise the issue when Biden visits Ottawa on March 23-24.

Many of the arrivals abandoned plans to seek asylum in the United States, deterred by long processing times and restrictive definitions of asylum, according to aid officials and interviews with asylum seekers.

On a snowy day in late February, about three dozen asylum seekers, some with suitcases, others with backpacks, trudged down a snowy trail from upstate New York to Quebec.

For Diaz, paying for the roughly $150 trip across town to Plattsburgh provided added incentive to a decision she’d been weighing for months.

“It turned out to be like a miracle,” she said. After arriving in the US in June last year, she was given a January 2024 date to appear before a US immigration court.

“I felt protected in the US, it just takes a long time to process the documents.”

New York City has been providing bus and plane tickets to homeless people since 2007 who can demonstrate a source of support in other cities and countries. Refugee aid groups began offering free bus tickets to migrants in August last year, but say they stopped doing so in November for cost reasons. New York City said it began its efforts in September.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ office declined to say how many tickets the city and partner organizations have bought for migrants. Reuters reached out to mayoral spokesmen Kate Smart and Fabien Levy for comment; the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; the Department of Homeless Services and SLSCO, the contractor handling ticket distribution.

Smart said migrants choose their destinations.

“To be clear, New York City didn’t send people anywhere in Canada,” Smart said. “We want to help asylum seekers stabilize their lives, whether in New York City or elsewhere.”

The US Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on processing times in the US asylum system. The Biden administration has asked Congress to revise immigration laws.

Nearly 40,000 asylum-seekers entered Canada via irregular border crossings from the United States last year — nine times more than in 2021, when pandemic restrictions were still in place, and more than double the nearly 17,000 who crossed in 2019. Almost 5,000 entered the country in January alone, according to the latest Canadian government figures.

In the 12 months ended September 30, Canada accepted more than 46% of irregular asylum applications, according to Canadian government data. According to US government data, US immigration courts approved 14% of asylum applications during the same period.

At the end of last year, Canada had more than 70,000 pending refugee applications. The United States had approximately 788,000 pending asylum cases in US immigration courts.

Nigerian, Haitian and Colombian nationals accounted for nearly half of irregular applications in Canada, according to previously unreported data from the Immigration and Refugee Board.


While the Safe Third Country Agreement allows US and Canadian officials to turn back asylum seekers at formal ports of entry in either direction, it does not apply to unofficial crossings like Roxham Road.

A Canadian government official who was not authorized to speak on the protocol told Reuters the US had little incentive to agree to extend the deal to the full 4,000-mile limit.

According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, asylum seekers in the United States wait on average more than four years before appearing in immigration court. According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, it takes at least six months after filing a refugee application to obtain a work permit.

“People are discouraged by the long, long time they have to get working papers and asylum hearings,” said Ilze Thielmann, director of Team TLC NYC, which helps migrants arriving in New York.

In Canada, the average processing time for refugee applications in the first 10 months of 2022 was 25 months. That’s an increase from 15 months in 2019, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Raymond Theriault, 47, said he left his home in the Nicaraguan mining town of Bonanza to connect with relatives in Canada, where his late father was born.

Theriault said he struggled to find steady work and that local officials prevented him from opening a small seafood restaurant after he criticized the government.

After entering the US in El Paso in November, last month he visited a daughter in West Virginia who was entering Canada at Roxham Road. In New York City, he paid $140 for a bus ticket to Plattsburgh.

Now at a government-funded hotel in Niagara Falls, he said he was happy with his decision to go to Canada.

“There’s more support, they’re more humanitarian,” he said. “In the United States … if you’re dying of hunger, that’s your problem.”

The Quebec government said the surge in asylum seekers is straining its capacity to house people and provide basic services. The federal government said it had relocated more than 5,500 asylum seekers to other provinces for the first time since June.

In his downtown Montreal office, refugee attorney Pierre-Luc Bouchard said he had never been so busy.

“I have limited resources. I can’t take everyone,” he said. “My employees are tired of saying ‘no’.”


Irregular border crossings into the United States are also increasing.

The U.S. Border Patrol said it has detained more than 2,200 people crossing between ports of entry in the four months since October, nearly as many as it did for all of fiscal 2022. The force said it has another 25 agents on the stretch of the border deployed, which includes Champlain, New York, where most of the migrants were arrested.

Immigration experts said closing the border to asylum seekers could push migrants to take even riskier routes. Last year, an Indian family of four froze to death in the Canadian province of Manitoba trying to cross the border into the United States.

“You’re just going to see people making riskier, more dangerous decisions, and we’re going to see more tragedy,” said Jamie Chai Yun Liew, professor of immigration law at the University of Ottawa.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Champlain, New York and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Denny Thomas and Suzanne Goldenberg)


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