Border towns mobilizing to lend hand to asylum-seekers

The Canadian Press
Morgan Lowrie

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y.–As the flow of asylum-seekers crossing into Canada continues, residents in towns along the Canada-U.S. border quietly are mobilizing to help the travellers who pass through in search of better lives.
Janet McFetridge, a resident of Champlain, N.Y., said she started seeing taxis passing by her house in November, around the time Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
“It’s just unusual because you don’t usually see cabs out here, so it’s very noticeable” she remarked.
Most of the taxis were heading to Roxham Road–a popular illegal crossing spot where people hop a small ditch into Canada in order to file asylum claims from within the country.
McFetridge said she and others in the area wanted to know how they could help.
“At first we were concerned about [winter] clothes, but then we’re also concerned now about the larger picture of if they’re sent back from Canada, are they going to be able to go somewhere?” she noted in an interview.
“The greater Plattsburgh area is looking for some system where people will be able to house them and get them on their way safely.”
What has emerged, McFetridge says, is a coalition of churches, citizens, and social organizations.
The group, which calls itself Plattsburgh Cares, is considering ways to offer food, shelter, transportation, or legal advice to people who are heading to Canada or who are turned back.
People who cross the border illegally and file their refugee claims in Canada generally are allowed to remain pending their hearing dates.
But McFetridge worries some people still could end up in the area while in transit or if they are turned back at an official border checkpoint due to the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which states refugees must file their claims in whichever of the two countries they reach first.
As the last sizable American town between New York City and the Canadian border, Plattsburgh also has seen a rise in the number of asylum-seekers passing through, said Mayor Colin Read.
“At first we thought it was maybe just a blip, a post-November thing, but it hasn’t been slowing down,” he noted in a recent interview.
Read, who advises the Plattsburgh Cares group, said the city wants to make sure the asylum-seekers aren’t taken advantage of.
That means ensuring city police are sensitive to issues of profiling, and trying to prevent taxi drivers from gouging clients going to the border, which he admits can be difficult because they operate outside city limits.
At a nondescript gas station just outside the town, taxi drivers line up for the arrival of the 3:20 p.m. bus from New York City.
One of the drivers, who declined to give his name, said he takes passengers to the border on a regular basis.
His company charges $100 for the trip, he noted, adding other companies charge more than double that amount.
Read, who said he’s heard of drivers charging $300 for a ride, said groups like Plattsburgh Cares could help by offering food, a couple of days’ lodging, and some advice to families who are split up or who are considering a run to the border.
“We’re trying to figure out how develop a network so whatever they do, they do so with full information,” said Read.
Read, who said the city is consulting with the U.S. Attorney General’s office to ensure everything is done legally, said he doesn’t see the group’s actions as a way to help people avoid immigration policy.
“I don’t think this is an issue of immigration policy, it’s an issue of making sure people aren’t exploited,” he stressed, adding most of the people who transited through had valid visas to be in the U.S.
On the Canadian side of the border, a group of citizens in Hemmingford, Que. also recently held an event to see how they could support the border jumpers.
That event included writing letters to Canada’s prime minister and immigration minister to ask them to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, so refugee claimants could present themselves at the border instead of crossing illegally.