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3/13: The Underground Railroad for Refugees (3)
Released 27 March 2017  By Jake Halpern – The New Yoker

The Underground Railroad for Refugees

(....Continued from Part Two)

“I still feel vulnerable,” he told me. “It will take a very long time to feel safe. I am going for the unknown. But we felt like maybe the unknown is safer. At least where we are going, there is law that protects the people. Where I am from, there is no law.” His wife added that they just wanted a “normal life” in Canada.

The staff encourages residents to prepare for likely questions from Canadian officials. They even offer a class, which I attended. Residents were warned that their luggage would be searched and their cell phones scrutinized. They would be photographed and fingerprinted. They were advised to answer questions honestly. Those with criminal records were encouraged to disclose them—their fingerprints might give them away. The instructor told students that they could expect both general and specific questions about their anchor relatives, such as “How many doors does her house have?” and “How many pets does she have, and what are the pets’ names?” The goal of the class is to eliminate the element of surprise. “We want to prepare them so that they don’t freak out when they get there,” one staff member told me.

Tita, the Eritrean refugee, attended the class that I observed. Afterward, we had lunch, and she showed me more photographs of Eli on her phone. “Every second, every breath—I think about him,” she told me. At eight o’clock in the morning a few days later, a taxi picked her up at Vive and crossed the Peace Bridge into Fort Erie. She used her dwindling funds to pay the taxi fare, which was about thirty dollars.

The cab dropped her off at the Canadian customs office. She went inside and sat by a window. Shortly afterward, she spotted her husband and son approaching the building on foot. She burst through the door, ran to them, and embraced Eli. “He was silent, just staring at me,” Tita recalled later. “He recognized me, because we had done Skype, but even so he seemed confused and uncertain. I was crying. I just told him, ‘I am your mom, I am your mom.’ ”

After thirty minutes, Tita was called into the office, alone, for her appointment. If the Canadians turned her back, the brief reunion was all she was going to get.

For asylum seekers with no anchor relatives in Canada, there is a more dangerous option. According to the Safe Third Country Agreement, anyone who makes it to an immigration center inside Canada’s borders will be considered for asylum. This provides an incentive for people to cross the border illegally. Fifteen months after the S.T.C.A. was implemented, the Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program at Harvard Law School issued a report warning that the treaty was “already beginning to encourage an underground system of migration.” The election of Donald Trump, whose tone toward immigrants has often been hostile, has led even more refugees to attempt crossings into Canada. This winter, Canadian authorities say, there has been a significant increase in illegal migration along the borders in Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia. “The farmers are worried about what they’re going to find when the snow melts,” a Canadian official told the Times.

In recent months, an unusually high number of Vive residents without anchor relatives in Canada have been disappearing at night, running off to cross the border illegally. Officially, the Vive staff will not help residents plan an illegal crossing. “Basically we just say, ‘That’s not something we can deal with or know about, and we don’t advise it, because it’s very dangerous,’ ” Mariah Walker told me. But she often tells residents, “Ultimately, it is your life, and you must make the decision.”

Quietly, residents share strategies and spend hours studying Google Maps together. Some refugees attempt to cross the border on foot, through the forests of northern New York State. Others take closer but riskier routes, including a treacherous railroad bridge over the Niagara River. One Vive volunteer told me, “Not long ago, a guy showed up from Afghanistan and asked me, right away, ‘How can I find the railroad bridge?’ ”

One day, I went to Fort Erie, where I met a twenty-two-year-old Salvadoran man named Jonatan, who had crossed illegally into Canada on the railroad bridge. Jonatan was running from gang members who had repeatedly tried to coerce him into joining their ranks. When he refused, they assaulted him with a knife—he had a scar along his upper lip. He had applied for asylum in the U.S. and had been rejected. Canada considers gang violence to be grounds for political asylum, but the U.S. does not. The S.T.C.A. is predicated, in part, on the notion that refugees stand comparable chances of gaining asylum in the U.S. and in Canada, but some human-rights groups, including Amnesty International, maintain that the U.S. isn’t really a “safe” country, because it rejects so many applicants. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has urged Canada to suspend the treaty.

Jonatan initially considered trekking into Canada through the forests of northern New York State, and travelled to the town of Rouses Point, which is less than two miles south of the border. But, before he could cross, a local police officer stopped him and questioned him. Feeling spooked, he decided that the railroad bridge was a better option. It was a questionable call. The bridge is not far upriver from Niagara Falls, and falling into the water would be perilous. According to Jonatan, the bridge had surveillance cameras, which ruled out crossing on foot. So he decided to sprint alongside a freight train and leap aboard. He worried that he might slip and get pulled under the wheels. “I knew I might be killed,” he told me. But he made it aboard, and when he jumped off he suffered only a few bruises. Soon afterward, he arrived at a refugee shelter in Fort Erie. So far, no Vive resident has died while making a crossing.

Lynn Hannigan, who runs the shelter where Jonatan was staying, told me that his chances of getting asylum were good. (She was right: a few months later, he won his case before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.) The unfortunate thing, Hannigan said, is that he had felt the need to risk his life.

Not long ago, I got a call from a Colombian man, in his early twenties, named Fernando, who was preparing to sneak across the border. For two days, he had been staying at a motel in Rouses Point—the same place where Jonatan had considered crossing. Fernando agreed to meet me, but declined to share the name of his motel—he said that the local police were keeping an eye on him. Instead, he suggested that we meet in front of a Catholic church in the center of town.

Fernando, a clarinet player, had visited Houston in 2010, with a Colombian youth orchestra. In the years since, gang violence had ravaged his home town, in central Colombia. Gang members put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him unless he joined them. He fled, carrying about three hundred dollars in cash, clothes, his passport, his phone, and his clarinet.

He obtained a tourist visa to the U.S., on the pretense that he would stay with friends in Houston. Instead, he went to Buffalo—he had read about Vive on the Internet. The staff told him that, since he had no anchor relative in Canada, they couldn’t help him file an asylum application. As Fernando sat in the hallway, crying, a Turkish resident told him that if he could cross into Canada his application would be considered. Fernando spent hours on his phone researching possible routes. Then he bought a bus ticket and travelled roughly four hundred miles northeast to Rouses Point.

I arrived in Rouses Point after sunset, and parked in front of the church, which was dark. A few minutes later, a slight young man in a hoodie knocked on my window and introduced himself as Fernando. After we drove less than a block, the local police pulled us over. The officer examined my license and asked me what I was doing in town. I said that I was a journalist who had come to meet with Fernando. The officer looked at him—there are few Latinos in the town—but after a few minutes he let us go.

We drove to a neighboring town, found an empty Chinese restaurant, and ordered some tea. It was late fall, and though Fernando was not eager to make the journey while it was cold and dark, he could not linger in Rouses Point. “I don’t have enough money in my wallet,” he said. He pulled out his phone and, using Google Earth, showed me where he planned to go. He would start on the edge of a golf course, trek north through several thousand feet of forest, then cross an open field into Canada.

His plan didn’t seem very well considered. He had not memorized the route, and he had no compass or paper maps. “I have my phone,” he said. “I know I will have to follow certain markers and always head north.”

We drove from the restaurant to his motel, to retrieve his backpack, which contained his clothing and his clarinet. He showed me the instrument. “This, I think, will be my future,” he said. We left the motel, and just a few blocks north the same police officer pulled me over. He asked me what I was doing back in town. I told him that we were picking up Fernando’s bag from his motel. The officer nodded and let us go.

Fernando was now in a panic. Crossing the golf course in Rouses Point was out of the question. Instead, we drove west, on a country road, with no destination in mind. As I drove, Fernando looked at Google Earth on his phone.

He asked me to drive toward a corridor of fields surrounded on both sides by thick forest. According to the map, he would cross the border in twenty-one hundred feet, pass through about a mile of scrubland, and then reach a small road in Canada. The closeup images on Google Earth were too blurry for him to tell if the border was fenced. I expressed concern about his plan, but he was determined to cross that night, even though he looked terrified.

(Continued Part Four...)


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