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3/13: The Underground Railroad for Refugees (4)
Released 27 March 2017  By Jake Halpern – The New Yoker

The Underground Railroad for Refugees

(....Continued from Part Three)

We drove on in silence. It was near midnight, and there were no other cars on the road. We approached the point where he wanted to be dropped off. On Google Earth, the fields had looked trimmed, but the ones in front of us were wildly overgrown. There was no moon, so it was impossible to distinguish the fields from the forests on either side.

I stopped in the middle of the road. On the right side, the route north, there was a steep embankment leading down to the fields. Fernando grabbed his backpack and opened his door; in the blackness, the car’s overhead light seemed glaringly bright. I told him to call me when he made it, or if he felt that he was in serious danger. He nodded goodbye, scurried down the embankment, and disappeared into the brambles.

After we parted, Fernando followed the curtain of vegetation northward, checking Google Earth as he went. The ground was wet, and his shoes soon filled with water. There was no fence or sign marking the border, but after a while his phone indicated that he had entered Canada.

While crossing a creek, he slipped, getting soaked to his waist. The air temperature was near freezing, and his legs were soon numb. He had to keep moving in order to keep his blood circulating, but became enmeshed in a dense thicket of branches. Unable to see or move, he broke down and prayed.

Fernando finally fought his way out of the thicket. Consulting his phone, he saw that he was still far from any town or major road. He pressed on for several hours, through woods and farm fields. “I was so tired that I started to see things, including a white shadow,” he told me later. “I thought it was a spirit who was going to take me back to America.”

Eventually, he reached Autoroute 15, which leads north to Montreal. A police car pulled alongside him, and two officers asked to see his documents. Fernando showed them his Colombian passport, and, in broken English, explained that he had crossed the border. The police officers took him to a customs office at the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing, several miles away. He slept for nearly eight hours, then answered questions from customs officials about how and why he had entered Canada. He was released. Fernando made plans to take a bus into Montreal, but before boarding he called his parents in Colombia, and relayed the news: he’d made it.

Two months later, Fernando appeared before a judge in Montreal to make his claim for asylum. He described gang members threatening him and his relatives. Colombia has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and gangs, rebel groups, and right-wing militias terrorize citizens in many parts of the country. Nevertheless, in 2015 only forty-two per cent of Colombians who applied were granted asylum in Canada. An applicant citing gang violence must prove that he did not have a “flight alternative” within his own country. Ultimately, the judge concluded that Fernando’s problem was merely with local gangs, although Fernando told me that many of the gangs in his home town were active throughout Colombia. He recounted the story of a couple from his home town, who had moved away to protect their son: “After a little while, they returned to our town—without him, because he’d been killed.”

Fernando has appealed the court’s decision and is awaiting a verdict. Recently, he obtained employment papers and began working at a car dealership in Montreal, rustproofing vehicles. He studies, part time, at a French-language school and has met a Latina woman—a Canadian citizen—whom he plans to marry. (Unfortunately for Fernando, marrying a Canadian does not reliably lead to citizenship.)

When Fernando was lost in the wilderness, he took a selfie: if he survived and became a Canadian, he thought, he might one day appreciate the image. After taking the photograph, he studied it in the darkness. Mainly, he saw desperation. But he also saw himself through a stranger’s eyes, as if it were a photograph in a newspaper, and he was moved by how far he had come. He still looks at the picture from time to time.

Tita’s life in Canada began much more smoothly. At the border, Canadian officials questioned her for hours. They scrutinized her documents, looking for inconsistencies. Tita had an aunt in Canada, and she attended the inquiry, presenting herself as an additional anchor relative and as someone who could corroborate Tita’s story. In the end, Tita was admitted and told that she had fifteen days to submit a claim for asylum. That evening, Tita’s family—including her aunt—crammed into a hotel room. “There were two beds,” she told me. “I spent the whole night awake. Everyone was so happy we did not give much attention to the beds.”

Two months later, Tita went before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to make her case for asylum. She appeared at a courthouse in Edmonton, but the judge was in Vancouver, presiding through videoconference. He asked her questions about the religious persecution that she had faced in Eritrea. She spoke about being imprisoned, getting sick, and escaping from the hospital. The judge questioned her at length, then concluded that her circumstances justified political asylum. (In 2015, Canada granted asylum to Eritreans in ninety-three per cent of cases.) Before the judge could finish explaining his decision, Tita interjected, thanking him profusely and sobbing. After so many years, her ordeal was over. Outside the courtroom, Eli and Ya awaited the verdict. “I didn’t have to say anything,” Tita recalled. “They could see it on my face.”

In Canada, conservative politicians have decried the current influx of immigrants. But, in a recent appearance before Parliament, Prime Minister Trudeau declared, “We will continue to accept refugees.” He added, “One of the reasons why Canada remains an open country is Canadians trust our immigration system and the integrity of our borders and the help we provide people who are looking for safety.”

On February 13th, U.S. Border Patrol agents raided a convenience store in a Buffalo suburb and arrested twenty-three people. The staff at Vive is now preparing for what to do if and when federal agents obtain a warrant and demand entrance into their building. “There’s been a mutual respect between us and the Border Patrol, all within the parameters of legality,” Mariah Walker said. She added that Buffalo has a large immigrant population, and that “the optics” of a raid on Vive would be very bad. Since Trump took office, many Vive residents have become “terrified,” Walker said: “More people are making hasty decisions. They’ve lost hope because they thought they would be safe in America, but it has turned out to be a scary place for them.” She went on, “I never thought my country would be the one people had to run from.”


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