Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Locals assist asylum-seekers

What was once a scrappy dirt path on the Canadian border marked “dead end” has now become a gateway to a new life for asylum-seekers.

Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017, nearly 40,000 asylum-seekers have traveled through Roxham Road—the most popular entry point into Canada located in the Village of Champlain—to cross into Canada according to the local newspaper The Sun Community News.

“Once the Trump administration came into power, [asylum-seekers] saw the writing on the wall that it would be very hard to get asylum [in the United States],” Plattsburgh Cares Co-founder Michelle Ouellette said.

Ouellette said Roxham Road is a popular entry point into Canada because asylum-seekers are less likely to be accommodated at the normal border.

This is because of the Canada-United States Safe Third Country agreement, which forces immigrants to claim asylum in the first country they arrive in. Therefore, asylum-seekers arriving outside the United States would be turned down for asylum at the regular Canadian border.

She said some asylum-seekers would come to the United States with a tourist visa and attempt to enter Canada via regular entry points. Asylum-seekers who are in this situation could face dire consequences after being turned away by Canadian border officials. Ouellette said they could be restricted from seeking asylum in Canada and be banned from entering the country for several years. The asylum-seekers would then be turned over to U.S. border officials who will penalize them for violating their tourist visa, which could lead to deportation.

“At that point, they’re not even entitled to a lawyer,” Ouellette said.

Ouellette recalls an instance where a family tried to cross under these circumstances and are tossed into the deportation process soon after being turned away. The father was put in a jail located in Buffalo while the rest of his family was placed in a local hotel that was paid for out-of-pocket.

Ouellette was one of the founders of Plattsburgh Cares—a “coalition of faith, service and activist groups working to assist immigrants and others in our community to achieve their goals safely and responsibly with compassion, justice and respect for all,” according to its Facebook page Plattsburgh Cares continues to assist Roxham Road asylum-seekers two years later.

The idea stemmed from City of Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read in 2017. Ouellette said he was disheartened by the situation and wanted to show Plattsburgh’s true identity. Soon after, Plattsburgh Cares was born.

The group assisted asylum-seekers with necessities like clothes and food at Roxham Road. It also made flyers to help guide asylum-seekers through the process. It contained information pertaining to the maximum amount of money a taxi driver can charge you for a ride to the border, border-crossing procedures and other information one crossing might find useful.

Some asylum-seekers are unaware that one can cross the border only once. Ouellette said there was an instance where a family crossed the border without their baby and had to beg officials to make an exception. The flyers also had Plattsburgh Care’s contact information in case an asylum-seeker needed food or shelter late at night.

Co-founder of Plattsburgh Cares Janet Mcfetridge visits Roxham Road as much as she can to assist asylum-seekers with clothes, food and compassion.

“I like to be a kind face to those who are walking this journey,” Mcfetridge said. “ I try to be as helpful as possible.”

Mcfetridge has watched Roxham Road go from an ordinary dirt road to a border checkpoint with officials waiting for asylum seekers.

Everyone wishing to cross into Canada is detained and interviewed by officials before being processed.

Mcfetridge has brought SUNY Plattsburgh students with her to the border in the past. One of those students was Student Association President Essence Hightower, who was president of the SUNY Plattsburgh Cares club at the time.

Hightower remembers her experience at Roxham Road well. She said there was an emotional moment when a little girl crossing with her family asked her for a teddy bear.

“Seeing what asylum-seekers were going through was very eerie,” Hightower said. “I will always remember it.

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