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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Rest in Peace, Roxham Road 

Biden and Trudeau struck a deal to close Canada’s asylum loophole, but migrants have already discovered a workaround.

Asylum Seekers Cross US/Canadian border in Champlain, New York.
(Andre Malerba for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The situation at the northern border may appear relatively tame compared to the chaos at the southern border. In a sane world, the 49th parallel would constitute a national emergency in its own right. In 2022, a record 39,540 migrants sought asylum from the U.S. in Canada, a figure that is nine times higher than either 2021 or 2020 and more than double the pre-pandemic trend.

Over 90 percent of these “irregular entries” occur in the province of Quebec. This is because of a loophole in a 2004 treaty called the “Safe Third Country Agreement” that permits the existence of Roxham Road, a small road connecting Champlain, New York, to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec. Anyone who arrives at Roxham Road with a suitcase is granted entry into Canada with a hug and a taxpayer-funded hotel room. 

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What makes Roxham Road such an egregious loophole is that someone from, e.g., Somalia, Nigeria, or Haiti isn’t being persecuted in America and doesn’t actually need to flee north. Both Canada and America are safe countries already, so it doesn’t really make sense for them to “seek asylum” in Canada. Why, precisely, were they fleeing?

In some cases, because the American side nudged them across. Mayor Eric Adams initially denied that officials from an overwhelmed New York City were shipping migrants towards Roxham Road. “We are not coordinating with anyone to go to Canada. We’re not doing it,” he insisted. “There is no role that the city is playing to tell migrants to go to Canada.”

This was soon found to be a lie. “Our goal is to help asylum seekers who wish to move to another location…to help [these people] reach their final destination, even if it is not New York,” confessed a spokeswoman for the city. Community organizations, she says, “have also helped issue tickets for those who want to go elsewhere.” 

What forced New York City to come clean was an investigation by the New York Post showing that, when a bus full of migrants arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 2022, National Guard soldiers would provide them with free bus tickets and directions to Roxham Road. This relocation effort was supported by several nonprofits, including Catholic Charities. A spokesperson for Catholic Charities Community Services confirmed, “Catholic Charities provided some assistance for their travel expenses.”

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Roxham Road has been a political hot potato for the past decade. Conservatives in Canada speculate that during President Donald Trump's presidency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surreptitiously promoted Roxham Road to migrants, in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge kind of way, presenting Canada as a virtuous and immigrant-friendly nation while insinuating that Trump's America was not. 

To their credit, upon seeing the record spike in 2022, the Trudeau and Biden administrations actually took steps to govern the border more effectively. They revised the treaty. Under the 2023 revision, Canada now has the authority to return migrants who cross at unofficial ports of entry, specifically Roxham Road, back to the United States.

Renegotiating a treaty of this magnitude always involves a delicate dance of political capital, posturing, and covert deal-making. While most of this wheeling and dealing remains shrouded from the public eye, there are fleeting moments where we catch sight of the process. One such instance seemingly eluded the notice of Canadian and American media outlets. 

On March 24, Prime Minister Trudeau announced a $100 million payment to Haiti’s police force to “help the country restore law and order.” On March 25, the revised treaty was announced and a sign was erected at Roxham Road that reads: “Stop. Do not cross. It is illegal to enter Canada from here. You will be arrested and may be returned to the United States. Refugee claimants must request protection in the first safe country they arrive in.” 

Ostensibly, the $100 million allocated to Haiti bears no connection to the announcement of the revised treaty. I can’t help but entertain the possibility of a causal connection between the two. Perhaps we are not meant to notice or care—just another everyday occurrence in the halls of Ottawa and Washington, where $100 million payoffs grease the wheels of democracy on a routine basis. Is this really how the world works?

Why Haiti? Because Haitians predominate among those who crossed Roxham Road in 2022. “Of the 40,000 people who entered Canada [last year] through Roxham Road, probably half were Haitians,” says Frederic Boisrond, a Quebec sociologist from Haiti. “It’s clear that the security situation in Haiti means that we can’t send people back.” 

Haiti is now the top beneficiary of Canadian aid in the Americas. Yet when President Joe Biden flew to Ottawa to sign the revised treaty, Haitians took to the opportunity to stage a protest outside the U.S. consulate in Montreal, decrying U.S. and Canadian “imperialism.” I guess it’s true what they say, no good $100 million bribe goes unpunished.

The updated treaty went into effect in late March 2023. In the week that followed, two families tragically perished while trying to cross the border by boat, circumventing Roxham Road some 130 kilometers southwest of Montreal. One family hailed from India, the other from Romania. Eight people died in total. Heartbreaking as these incidents are, the latest border data for April 2023 shows a significant drop in interceptions. In April, irregular crossings were down to 85, a massive 98 percent decrease from the previous month. Roxham Road has been closed.

Here comes the twist. 

While Roxham Road’s numbers have taken a nosedive, refugee claims at airports have exploded, setting a new record in April 2023. Evidently, “asylum seekers” are now choosing to fly rather than walk across the border.

Robert Falconer, a quantitative researcher at the London School of Economics specializing in Canadian migration policy, explained it to me this way. “Even as Canadian and American negotiators were hammering out the expanded treaty, there was a parallel rise in refugee claimants flying into Canadian airports to make their asylum claim,” he said.

“Not only that, but with more incentive to evade police officers and border patrol officials, we may begin to see the rise in claims from previously unknown, unrecorded, and untracked asylum seekers who crossed clandestinely into Canada in order to lodge a claim. If the federal government is unable to manage the rising number of airport claims or ascertain the origin of certain claimants crossing the border clandestinely, it may consider the expanded Safe Third Country Agreement an unsatisfactory remedy to its backlog of asylum claims.”

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