Members of Clinton County filed into E. Glenn Giltz Auditorium on Oct. 22 to hear a panel on refugees in the North Country, sponsored by Plattsburgh Cares and comprised of Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read, local immigration attorney David Gervais, Solidarity Across Borders member Mary Foster and Village of Champlain trustee Janet McFetridge.

The event kicked off with an introduction by Coordinator of the Center for Community Engagement Julia Devine, who expressed the importance of the event as well as the Center’s mission. “Part of what the Center does is build bridges between the campus and the community and foster citizenship and social responsibility.”

PSUC Student Association President Vrinda Kumar took the stage and spoke of her own experience being undocumented in Dubai and how she can relate to the struggles refugees face. “I know, in a way, how this feels,” Kumar began,“Back home, when I was in Dubai, it was a time which I was undocumented and that time was really unfruitful, in terms of what separated me and my ability to do things was papers.”

Before the panelists assumed their places on stage, the lights in the auditorium dimmed, and then a video appeared on screen. It was a newscast by CBC News that aired in September.

The newscast features a confrontational RCMP (Royal Canadian Mountain Police) officer posted on the Canadian side of an increasingly more popular illegal crossing just north of Plattsburgh, questioning and informing a band of refugees with valid US visas on the opposite end.

One of the questions the RCMP officer asked was if the refugees understood their legal status in the US would be nullified if they crossed into Canada. The refugees responded with a resounding, “Yes!”One of the questions the RCMP officer asked was if the refugees understood their legal status in the US would be nullified if they crossed into Canada. The refugees responded with a resounding, “Yes!”The newscast continued with the officer trying to clarify what the refugees already knew.  “I want to be clear though,” she said, “The difference is: If you’re refused here, you’re returned directly to Nigeria (the home country of the refugees)” The refugees expressed their acknowledgement, even frustration.

“Yes” one stern-faced refugee said, “And we would be leaving this!” By the end of the video, while the refugees, now becoming restless, and the officer continue going back-and-forth, a traveler not a part of the original group of refugees walks straight through the crossing, prompting the rest to follow him, where they are all arrested by RCMP officers.  There have been thousands of asylum seekers, just like the refugees in the video, crossing into Canada using Roxham Road, roughly a 30 minute drive from Plattsburgh. Their goal is to make an asylum claim in Canada after they are arrested, but asylum status isn’t a guarantee.

In fact, it often takes years, around three to seven, for their case to be heard and the chance of being approved is 60 percent. Yet, many asylum seekers choose this illegal method of entry. That’s because of the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), a treaty the United States signed with Canada in 2002. Under the treaty, refugees seeking asylum status at an official port of entry in one country are denied.

The treaty states refugees must declare asylum status in the first country they arrive in.  However, by electing to cross into Canada illegally, the refugees are no longer subject to the STCA, meaning they can stay in Canada while their claim is being reviewed.  Gervais, an immigration lawyer on the panel, believes the current political climate plays a large role in the refugee’s hasty decisions.

And data seems to agree with him.Since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, there has been a sharp rise in illegal crossings into Canada by asylum seekers. It began with 678 crossing in February. Then swelling to 5,712 in August alone.

In all, more than 15,000 asylum seekers have crossed into Canada so far this year, a stark contrast to the 2,464 illegal crossings by the same group in all of 2016, according to the the office of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Mayor Colin Read opened the panel by saying, “The vast majority of  the [refugees] coming through our community have every right to be here,” he stressed, “They’re fearful that they may lose that right sometime in the future, so like everyone of us, we try to strive to find opportunities for ourselves.”Read continued by saying how as a city, Plattsburgh is limited in ways to help the refugees but emphasized “the individuals coming through our community are all people deserving of every single dignity and opportunity we’ve provided to any other individual.”

Gervais believes refugees see Canada as a “golden goose”, where their problems will be solved but is unsure Canada will be able to meet everyone’s needs.  Mary Foster, with Solidarity Across Borders, a Montreal based activist group, agreed with Gervais’ sentiment saying, “We have a really cute Prime Minister who gives a warm, fuzzy presentation of Canada and has been making statements about welcoming refugees,” she said, “But, the reality is different.

It’s very key that Canada has not… reviewed the STCA or increased resources to account for the increasing number of people coming over.” It takes three months just to be determined eligible for asylum status Foster said. During this period, asylum seekers have little access to resources in Canada. “They don’t have access to social assistance, health care, education, work permits,” she said. Besides the Canadian government’s own shortcomings in dealing with incoming refugees, Foster also noted the public’s opinion toward the refugees, “Fifty three percent of Canadians are now saying Canada is being too generous to people coming across the border.”

Ultimately, Foster sees a global solution being the best case to deal with the influx of asylum seekers, as opposed to the current method the Canadian Government is taking of reviewing each instance on a case-by-case basis.

Email Fernando Alba at news@cardinalpointsonline.com

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