Northern Closure

The U.S.-Canada 'Smart Borders' Accord Sells Refugees Down the River

BUFFALO, NEW YORK—It's a familiar routine. At 3 p.m. on a thick August afternoon, Jonathan Croom drives his cab up in front of an old brick building on the dilapidated east side of town and waits for his customers—this time, a family from Sudan. Croom, 52, once earned his living in the local steel industry, but when the plants closed down—dragging Buffalo's economy with them—he cast about for a few years before finding his groove as a taxi driver. Now his '96 Ford Crown Victoria is his vehicle to survival in what he calls the "day-in, day-out struggle of trying to make a living in this depressed town." For his passengers—who climb aboard for the last leg of a journey that may have begun as far away as Burundi, Sri Lanka, or Colombia—Croom's car is a chariot to freedom.

Every year, some 15,000 refugees arrive in the U.S. and keep going toward Canada, where they hope to start new lives. (Only about 200 each year come through Canada to seek asylum in the U.S.) Croom drives many of them across the border to prearranged appointments with Canada's immigration service, thus playing a crucial role in a little-known, orderly system that enables people fleeing persecution to request safe harbor.

But that steady traffic rankles officials in Canada, where the number of refugee claims has doubled in the last three years. Canada's leaders have long been trying to stem the tide by getting the U.S. to agree that asylum seekers should ask for protection in the land where they first set foot—the "safe third country" between the nation of origin and the desired refuge. Overwhelmed by its own backlog of asylum cases, the U.S. has refused. But now the U.S. is about to grant the favor as part of the 30-point "Smart Border" security plan being hammered out between Washington and Ottawa. American officials acknowledge that the safe-third-country accord—likely to be signed within a few weeks—does not enhance anti-terrorism efforts, but is simply part of the package deal. In other words, says Eleanor Acer of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the U.S. "is sacrificing the interests of refugees as some kind of bargaining chip."

According to Acer and other advocates, a similar safe-third-country arrangement in the European Union has been disastrous, bouncing would-be refugees from country to country so relentlessly that the situation has come to be described as "refugee soccer." Meanwhile, hundreds of migrants die each year trying to reach the U.S. from Mexico, and advocates warn that the death toll could begin to rise along the northern border as well, as refugees hell-bent on Canada risk dangerous illegal crossings.

Anti-immigrant groups have slammed the agreement, too—though not out of humanitarian concerns for refugees. The Federation for American Immigration Reform charges hysterically that the new rule will "compound security risks" by flooding the U.S. with additional asylum applicants and that "terrorists would be certain to take advantage of a system that is unable to cope with a growing caseload."

For his part, after chatting with scores of migrants in his taxi over the last couple of years, Croom believes the pending change just "doesn't make a lot of sense." He adds, "These people have connections in Canada and other reasons to go there. Why would we want to force them to stay here?"

About 5000 of the refugees who enter Canada from the U.S. each year come through Buffalo, specifically through Vive: An Organization for World Refugees. At Vive's La Casa, a converted parish school building with 110 beds and a sprawling basement cafeteria, the group provides food and shelter, as well as medical, legal, and counseling services for refugees in transit between the two countries. (Some residents have lost their cases in Canada and been deported to the U.S.)

Located on a quiet street in a run-down black neighborhood, Vive is better known in Africa, Asia, and Latin America than it is among the citizens of Buffalo. Most Canadian-bound refugees staying at La Casa set out with its address in their pockets: Like similar, smaller programs in Vermont and Detroit, Vive is publicized both by settled refugees who share their route with relatives back home, and by agents—or "smugglers"—who arrange passage. They come through these cities because it's often easier to get flights to the U.S. than to Canada—and often easier to get U.S. visas, too, since Canada has so few consular offices overseas. Those from Central America often come by land.

Working with Citizenship Immigration Canada (CIC)—the country's equivalent to our INS—Vive helps set up refugee claim appointments for its clientele at CIC's office on the Canadian side of the border. When the time comes, a taxi driver, like Croom, delivers them.

It is not lost on Croom, an African American, that Buffalo has long been a gateway to freedom. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—which mandated the return of runaway slaves to their owners no matter where in the Union they were captured—Buffalo was a critical destination on the Underground Railroad. Slaves who made it there and crossed the border found liberty. So for Croom, ferrying today's refugees at $45 for the 20-minute ride is not just a business that the safe-third-country accord will most certainly slash. It is also a mission. It's "fulfilling," he says, "to be in a position to help people trying to get away from terrible circumstances."

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