Bookseller Zulema Diaz fled her native Peru after being kidnapped, beaten and robbed, hoping to find safety in the United States. Instead, she found herself homeless and sexually harassed while working informally cleaning a hospital.
So when Diaz, 46, learned that New York City was distributing free bus tickets, he boarded a bus bound for Plattsburgh, near the Canadian border, and then took a taxi to the irregular Roxham Road border crossing to enter Canada and file an asylum claim.
The sharp surge of asylum seekers entering Canada through unofficial crossings — including many whose bus tickets were paid for by New York City and aid agencies — is intensifying pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to strike a deal with President Joe Biden to close the entire land border to most asylum seekers.
Canadian Immigration Minister Sean Fraser spoke this week in Washington about irregular immigration with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Trudeau has said he will raise the issue when Biden visits Ottawa on March 23-24.
Many of the new arrivals abandoned their plans to apply for asylum in the United States, deterred by long processing times and restrictive asylum definitions, according to aid officials and interviews with asylum seekers.
On a snowy day in late February, some three dozen asylum seekers, some with suitcases and others with backpacks, trudged down a snowy trail from New York state to Quebec.
For Diaz, the city’s payment for the $150 ticket to Plattsburgh was an added incentive to make a decision he had been weighing for months.
“This was presented as a miracle,” he said. After arriving in the United States in June last year, he was given a January 2024 date to appear in U.S. immigration court.
“I felt protected in the United States, only it takes a long time to process the documents.”
Since 2007, New York City has been providing bus and plane tickets to homeless people 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 said they stopped doing so in November for cost reasons.
New York City said it began its effort in September.
New York Mayor Eric Adams’ office declined to say how many tickets the city and partner charities bought for migrants. Reuters asked for comment from mayoral spokesmen Kate Smart and Fabien Levy; the mayor’s office of immigrant affairs; the Department of Homeless Services, and SLSCO, the contractor responsible for the distribution of the tickets.
Smart said immigrants choose their destinations.
“To be clear, New York City hasn’t sent people anywhere in Canada,” Smart said. “We want to help asylum seekers stabilize their lives, whether it’s in New York or anywhere else.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on processing times in the U.S. asylum system. The Biden administration has asked Congress to overhaul immigration laws.
Nearly 40,000 asylum seekers entered Canada through 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.
Nearly 5,000 entered in January alone, according to the most recent figures from the Canadian government.
Canada accepted more than 46% of irregular asylum applications in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, according to Canadian government data. U.S. immigration courts approved 14 percent of asylum applications in the same period, according to U.S. government data.
At the end of last year, Canada had more than 70,000 refugee claims pending. The United States had about 788,000 asylum cases pending in U.S. 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.
PEOPLE ARE DISCOURAGED
Although the Safe Third Countries Agreement allows U.S. and Canadian officials to return asylum seekers in both directions at official ports of entry, it does not apply to unofficial crossings such as Roxham Road.
A Canadian government official who was not authorized to speak privately told Reuters the United States has little incentive to extend the agreement to the entire 6,000-kilometer border.
Asylum seekers in the United States wait more than four years on average to appear in immigration court, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it takes at least six months to obtain a work permit after filing a refugee claim.
“People are discouraged by the very long time they have to get work papers and asylum hearings,” said Ilze Thielmann, director of Team TLC NYC, which helps immigrants arriving in New York.
In Canada, the average processing time for refugee claims was 25 months in the first 10 months of 2022. That’s a 15-month increase in 2019, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Raymond Theriault, 47, said he left his home in the Nicaraguan mining town of Bonanza with the goal of connecting with relatives in Canada, where he said his late father was born.
Theriault said he had struggled to find stable work and that local authorities prevented him from opening a small seafood restaurant after he criticized the government.
After crossing into the United States via El Paso in November, he visited a daughter in West Virginia and entered Canada via Roxham Road last month. In New York, he paid $140 for a bus ticket to Plattsburgh.
Now, at a government-paid hotel in Niagara Falls, he said he’s happy with his decision to go to Canada.
“There is more support, they are more humanistic,” he said. “In the United States … If you starve, the problem is yours.”
Quebec’s government has said the surge in asylum seekers is testing its ability to house people and provide basic services. The federal government said it has relocated more than 5,500 asylum seekers to other provinces since June, the first time it has done so.
In his office in downtown Montreal, refugee lawyer Pierre-Luc Bouchard says he’s never been busier.
“I have limited resources. I can’t serve everybody,” he said. “My staff is getting tired of saying ‘no'”
GROWING NUMBERS IN BOTH DIRECTIONS
Irregular crossings into the United States are also increasing.
The U.S. Border Patrol said it apprehended more than 2,200 people crossing between ports of entry in the four months since October, nearly as many as in all of fiscal year 2022. The force said it deployed 25 additional agents to the stretch of border that includes Champlain, New York, where most of the migrants were apprehended.
Immigration experts noted that 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 while trying to cross the border into the United States.
“People will make riskier and more dangerous decisions, and more tragedies will happen,” said Jamie Chai Yun Liew, professor of immigration law at the University of Ottawa.