The Mexico-U.S. border was as far as Nigerian Lateef Oyinloye made it, initially.
He was trying to follow the footsteps of his wife, who was already in Canada, seeking asylum.
But as soon as he jumped over a wall from Mexicali, a border city in northern Mexico, he was arrested by U.S. border agents and taken to an Arizona jail, where he was held for two months before being transferred to another facility in Calexico, Calif.
Even though he repeatedly asked for asylum, for a total of six months, he said, he was detained, “shackled and handcuffed,” and his refugee claim ignored.
“They made us feel we were criminals. They even took us to court and the judge said, ‘You are in a country whereby the president says he doesn’t want any visitor to come into his country, so you have broken the law,’” said Oyinloye, who ultimately made it to Canada for asylum in June last year.
“They tried to dehumanize you and make you feel you don’t have hope to stay and you’d better go back where you come from, so you would sign your own deportation paper. That was the logic they applied to their immigration system under (U.S. President Donald) Trump’s regime.”
While Trump won’t be in the White House after Jan. 20, critics say the damage has been done.
Under his watch, border walls have been built, the number of refugees admitted into America has diminished, travellers from Muslim countries have been banned and parents have been separated from young children.
It has all contributed to an image of cruelty and an unprecedented exodus of asylum seekers from the States to its northern neighbour.
Almost 60,000 asylum claims have been made by irregular migrants from the U.S. since statistics started being compiled by the Immigration and Refugee Board in early 2017.
The unforeseen inflow renewed the political debate — and litigation — in this country over Canada-U.S. border enforcement and led to widely publicized images of Mounties meeting asylum seekers as they walked across the land border.
With Democratic president-elect Joe Biden coming into the office, few expect to see an overhaul of the U.S. asylum system or the possibility of change to the organizational culture to align it with comparable checks and balances in the Canadian system.
“It is going to be years before some of the impacts of the changes made under Trump can be rolled back and implemented. Certainly, there are some policy moves Biden can do right away, like the policy of family separation,” said Queen’s Universiy immigration and refugee law professor Sharry Aiken.
“You don’t have to pass a new law to stop it. The White House can give directions to stop that. But if you look at the erosion of legal safeguards in American asylum system, those changes require Congressional involvement. They’re going to take years to roll back.”
Ottawa has been trying to negotiate with its U.S. counterparts to “modernize” the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement, launched in 2004 to manage the flow of refugee claimants at the Canada-U.S. land border.
Built on the assumption that the two countries give the same treatment to refugees and that both nations are safe to seek protection, the bilateral pact allows Canada to turn back potential refugees who arrive at official land ports of entry along the Canada-U.S. border, and vice versa.
Those rules have led to the influx of “irregular migrants.”
Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, says there’s no magic wand for Biden to wave to change the landscape for refugees in the U.S., adding that some of the issues with the American asylum system have predated Trump.
“It’s no secret that people understand the U.S. asylum system is deeply flawed. When people have a choice of staying in the U.S. facing a retrograde system or having a fair shot of protection, the choice is not difficult,” Silcoff said. “We’ve talked about the hope with the new administration, but there’s very little to celebrate.
“On Jan. 20, there won’t be a rainbow or sunny day that appears for refugees.”
A real-estate agent from Lagos in Nigeria, Oyinloye said the difference between how he was treated by the U.S. versus Canada was night and day, and that asylum seekers will keep heading north through unguarded land borders to skirt the asylum restrictions.
“More and more people now know how to get here for asylum. There are videos online (for instructions),” said Oyinloye, 41. “The U.S. is racist. Half of the country has voted for Trump and it shows who Americans are. It’s not a place for people looking for protection.”
He said his wife, Kemi, 39, fled to the United States in 2016 after she was accused of being a witch for her repeated miscarriages and became the target of attacks by their families.
She stayed with a friend in Baltimore and worked as a babysitter until she left for Canada the following year after narrowly escaping an immigration raid while shopping at a local Walmart. She saw reports on CNN that droves of irregular migrants were crossing into Canada for asylum and followed their route.
Unable to get a U.S. or Canadian visa, Oyinloye registered for a business conference in October 2018 in Mexico, where he was immediately intercepted at the airport. He said he was held for weeks before he got help from the Mexican embassy for his release.
He and a Pakistani man he met in detention then planned their trip into the U.S. They were immediately apprehended by U.S. border officials and Oyinloye was detained for six months before his release on a $5,000 bond on June 9, 2019.
Still wearing the tracker chained on his ankle by U.S. authorities, Oyinloye said, he travelled for four days by Greyhound from California to his friend in Maryland before arriving in Plattsburg, N.Y. From there, he took a cab to the Quebec border and crossed the famous Roxham Road into Canada on foot.
The quaint country road in upstate New York, bordering Quebec, has become an internationally known pathway for hopeful migrants, featured by global media showing thousands of asylum seekers crossing through the unguarded border, greeted by RCMP officers.
“The (Canadian) officers asked me if I wanted to seek asylum. They even cut the tracker off for me. They gave me food and sent me to a shelter,” said Oyinloye, who now works as a personal support worker in Quebec and is still awaiting his asylum hearing with his wife.
“We are so happy to be in Canada. You can’t buy happiness with money.”
Dana, a mother of two, had no plans to become a refugee until she was laid off by her employer in Qatar in 2018 and found herself with nowhere to go to beside returning to her native Lebanon, where she faced threats from her estranged ex-husband.
The 37-year-old had arrived Qatar with her former spouse in 2013 on his work permit, but he went back to Beirut when their relationship soured. She remained there alone with her daughters because she felt officials in Qatar could better protect her from her ex.
But as the economy tanked in Qatar, Dana, who asked her real name not be used to avoid her ex’s detection, was laid off and was told she had to leave the country when she failed to secure another employer.
With a multiple-entry American visa, she and the girls left their belongings with her sisters in Qatar and flew to the U.S.
“We would like to immigrate to Canada legally but we only had a week to plan and had no other choice,” said Dana, who has a bachelor business degree from Lebanon that’s associated with the Capilano University in British Columbia.
“We did not seek asylum in the U.S. because Trump was there. He didn’t like Muslims and anyone wearing a hijab. He is a racist.”
After researching online for a route to Canada, she and her daughters took a train from New York City to Plattsburg, N.Y., where they took a taxi to the Canadian border and walked into Quebec through Roxham Road.
“I don’t know much about the Safe Third Country (Agreement) or what’s legal or illegal. I needed to find a place that’s safe for my daughters,” said Dana, whose asylum claim was accepted in August 2019.
“Canada’s system opens to everyone and the system is fair.”
Canada also wasn’t on the option list for Carlos, who fled Colombia to the U.S. with his wife and two young boys in January 2019 after more than a year of threats from guerrilla groups in Bogota.
A university math professor, he was involved in local initiatives to keep young people out of gangs, which got him into trouble.
“We never wanted to leave our country and we only knew of the U.S.,” said the 41-year-old man, who asked to have his real name withheld due to fears about the safety of his family back home. “It never crossed our mind to come to Canada.”
However, after consulting with lawyers in the U.S., he was advised that he should consider coming to Canada because his chances of getting protection in the U.S. were slim.
The family rented a car in New York City and decided to drive straight up to a Canadian port of entry for asylum, unaware of the law in place that would have turned them back to the U.S.
Somehow, Carlos missed the official border post and crossed into an unguarded road into Canada before they were stopped by Canadian border officers in cruisers.
“They took our passports and asked if we wanted to file a refugee claim,” said Carlos through an interpreter. “They treated us well with respect. They needed to handcuff me but they did it in a way that my children would not see so it wouldn’t scare them. They were so cordial and kind.”
After the family was released hours later, they drove to a refugee shelter in Toronto that they came across online, in the middle of a blizzard in February 2019.
Coming from a tropical country, Carlos had never driven in snow before and by the time they arrived in the city at night, the shelter was closed. Fortunately, a volunteer opened the door and let them sleep on the floor in the office overnight.
“We’ve left behind everything we had. It’s hard to start from zero again. We had no grasp of the English language. We came from big families and now it’s just the four of us in Canada,” said Carlos, who works as a forklift operator in Toronto.
“But we feel safe and can finally have peace here. It’s difficult to explain, but you can’t put a price or value on peace and safety.”
The family was granted asylum in Canada earlier this year, just before refugee hearings were cancelled and stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adam Sadinsky, a Toronto immigration and refugee lawyer, says people who fear persecution in their home countries go wherever they feel they are going to get a fair shot to be protected.
Both Carlos and Dana would not have been able to get asylum in the U.S. given the circumstances of their claims, Sadinsky noted.
“Here in Canada, our applications under (the United Nations) Convention refugee definition is very well developed in keeping with international law and fundamental human rights,” he explains.
“In the U.S., the door is now practically closed to asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence and persecution from gangs. Both Carlos and Dana would have been on a path to deportation. Instead, here in Canada, they have been accepted as Convention refugees. That’s a huge difference between Canada and our closest neighbour.”
Advocates have successfully challenged the Safe Third Country Agreement in the Canadian Federal Court, which ruled in July that the pact was unconstitutional. It said the U.S. was not safe for refugees and that Canada was complicit in the cruel treatment of asylum seekers by refusing them entry. The judgment is currently under appeal by the federal government.
According to Canada Border Services Agency, at least 4,400 asylum seekers have been turned away at the U.S. land border since 2016 under the terms of the bilateral agreement.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan says the Liberal government has been looking for ways to further extend the application of the restrictions to the entire 8,900-kilometre borders shared by the two countries, shutting Canada’s door to the irregular migrants.
Unless the U.S. gets rid of its mandatory detention policy upon arrival for asylum seekers, she said, Canada should suspend the safe country agreement.
“To be clear, people embarked on dangerous journeys to unofficial borders risking life and limb in the hopes of getting to safety. They are not crossing because it’s fun. They are crossing because they don’t have any other choice,” Kwan said.
“If changes are made to rescind Trump’s discriminatory policies with an overhaul of the U.S. refugee detention system, I believe it will instill a sense of calm and safety for the migrants and their family, which in turn may have an impact on our border.”
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