MONTREAL – Beads of sweat trickled down her forehead as Carole Wembert dragged one bulky black-and-red suitcase and toted two other bags, the load weighing heavy on both her mind and body as she approached the border crossing.
After 15 years in the United States, the Haitian immigrant had quit her job at Walmart in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She packed up her four children, flew 1,200 miles to New York City, took a bus for seven hours and then a taxi before finally reaching the heavily forested spot on the U.S.-Canada border that has become a word-of-mouth entry point to a new life for immigrants.
The future in Canada was uncertain, but she was pretty sure what faced her in the U.S.: deportation.
“The president doesn’t want the immigrants to stay,” Wembert said.
She was repeating the widely held belief among some immigrant groups that President Donald Trump is closing the door to immigrants. Haitians in particular are worried because nearly 60,000 — including Wembert — have been living in the U.S. under temporary protected status (TPS), the special humanitarian relief given to Haiti since its devastating 2010 earthquake left more than 300,000 dead.
The Trump administration has been increasingly signaling that it may end the status for Haitians in January. That’s fueling an unprecedented exodus of mostly Haitian migrants from the United States across a dirt and gravel-covered ditch in upstate New York to Canada.
More than 3,800 migrants flowed into Quebec during the first two weeks of this month, Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman Claude Castonguay said.
“We’ve never seen such numbers coming in,” Castonguay said.
In July, police arrested 2,984 people near the same crossing. In June, there were just 781 arrests.
Wembert said she needed to flee the U.S. to save her children. Three of the four were born in the United States and she said there are no prospects for her children in Haiti.
“I don’t want to go with my kids to my country,” Wembert said. “With what am I going to take care of them if I go back?”
“I felt that I had no other choice but to come here with my children,” she added.
As the illegal flow of Haitian migrants continues into Canada’s French-speaking Quebec province, many families like Wembert’s — with U.S.-born children — could face a painful dilemma, immigration experts say: What to do with their children if they are deported to Haiti.
To win an asylum claim in Canada, migrants will have to convince an independent immigration and refugee board that they would be at risk of persecution or even death if they returned to their homeland. Failure to prove it means deportation.
Despite being allowed to enter Canada, many Haitian immigrants aren’t granted asylum. “The success rate for last year, 2016, was 50 percent so you’re facing a very real risk of being refused,” said Richard Goldman, an immigration attorney with the Committee to Aid Refugees in Montreal. “It’s not an easy case to make especially if you’ve been living in the States for many years.”
Even if parents win asylum, their U.S.-born kids will be refused, Goldman said, because they would not be in danger in the U.S.
“They have to think, ‘Am I being threatened if I go back to Haiti and can I prove that?’ ” said Francine Dupuis, who oversees PRAIDA, a Quebec government-funded program that supports asylum-seekers after their arrival. “If they are not in that situation, if they were only in the States because there was an earthquake and their country is poor, that is not enough to become a refugee. They have to think about that before they cross the border.”
Under a 2002 agreement between Canada and the United States, migrants must apply for refugee status in the first country they arrive in. A migrant crossing into Canada at a regular U.S. border point will be told to turn around and claim refugee status in the United States. But the treaty, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, only applies at land ports-of-entry where border guards can visually confirm that a migrant is entering one country directly from the other.
Over the years, asylum-seekers have realized that if they can make it past the border at an illegal entry point, such as the Roxham Road crossing in upstate New York, where there are no border guards, they can request asylum from within Canada.
Castonguay said police and the Canada Border Services Agency are seeing “roughly about 250” crossings a day. As the number has grown, so too have the calls for a suspension of the treaty to close the loophole and shut off the flow.
No one is saying how many of the migrants are children and of those, how many are U.S. born. But Patrick Lefort, Canada Border Services Agency regional director general for Quebec, said that between 85 and 89 percent of the asylum-seekers are Haitian.
Goldman said the question of U.S.-born children comes up frequently in asylum cases. And while in the Haitian cases much depends on Haitian law — and whether Haiti is willing to accept the foreign-born children of its citizens — non-Haitian citizens cannot be forcefully deported to Haiti.
“They are definitely American citizens. … The parents have an option of having them returned to the States,” he said.
And unless the parents have someone to send their children to in the U.S., Goldman said, “the parents really face an impossible choice because it’s basically either bringing them to Haiti or sending them literally to … a foster home.”
Coming to Canada for safe haven, he said, “is a very risky proposition.”
Stephane Handfield, a Montreal attorney who represents a number of Haitian families who have recently crossed the border, said they’re often surprised when he explains the difficulty of trying to remain legally in Canada. Social media has spread false information that Canada has an open-door policy.
“A lot of my clients think that because they are in Canada, they just have to apply for residency status and that status will be granted and they will be able to stay in Canada for the rest of their lives,” he said. “This is not true. They will have to pass through a strict process … they will have to convince some board members that their life is still in danger today — 2017, in Haiti — not 10 years ago.”
By the time Wembert arrived at the border crossing on Roxham Road in Champlain, N.Y., near Saint Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec, shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday, scores of migrants had already arrived under cover of darkness and were sitting in the white tents that constitute the makeshift reception area.
As her children waited for her to join them on the dirt path that leads to the Canadian side — and into the arms of police, who warn all migrants attempting to illegally cross that they face immediate arrest — 12-year-old daughter Sabine, wearing a pullover sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers and carrying a purple backpack, focused on the new adventures that might lie ahead. She wanted to experience cold weather.
“I like snow,” she said. “I like going to a place that’s cold.”
But most of all, she said, her voice turning more serious, they would find “a better life” in Canada.