Northern Closure

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

At 3:10, the Sudanese family emerges from the building, stuffs suitcases bound with string into Croom's trunk, and piles in: a 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy into the backseat, Mom up front. Three older kids go in a second car and the caravan heads to the Peace Bridge. Built in 1927, the multi-lane bridge lunges over the Niagara River just above its source in Lake Erie. The girl clutches a small suitcase to her chest, the boy's legs jitter nonstop and both stare out the window, trying to size up a continent they've been on for all of 48 hours.

Afraid to reveal their identities or any details of their story, Mom will say only that she is a women's rights activist, that they've been living as refugees in Kenya for a while, and that they need to flee because of a "security problem." They paid an agent to get them over. (They would not disclose the price, but a 22-year-old Somali woman who took the taxi ride the next day—with only the colorful dress on her back, no documents or luggage—said arranging her passage cost $3000; a Sri Lankan woman, an English teacher back home, said her agent charged $20,000.) The Sudanese family flew into JFK, breezed by the passport check with tourist visas the agent helped procure, and, following his instructions, boarded a bus for Buffalo and, upon arrival, phoned Vive.

When the new rule goes into effect, only a few thousand who meet special conditions will be allowed to plead their case in Canada. Others will try, instead, to cross clandestinely and take advantage of a law that allows those on Canadian soil to make an "inland" claim for "protected status." So, as Vive's executive director, Christopher Owens, sees it, the "Smart Border" accord "will encourage illegal entry, increase the influence of smugglers, make the border less secure, and endanger refugees' lives."

At public hearings on the accord in Washington on August 1, U.S. officials admitted as much. The U.S. doesn't expect all 15,000 of the migrants now making their way via the U.S. to Canada to end up rejected and turned over to the INS. Joseph Langlois of the INS asylum division said that several thousand won't even try to go to Canada or will find a way to get there without passing through the U.S. Several thousand others will be welcomed into Canada by meeting the exceptions allowed in the agreement. And the rest, said Langlois, "will enter Canada illegally."

Says Owens, "I was dumbfounded when he said they expected three or four thousand people would cross the border illegally. To hear an INS person shrugging that off as Canada's problem—that just knocked me out."

The Canadian-U.S. border stretches 4000 miles—twice as long as the Mexican border. Massive freight traffic pours across all along this border with America's biggest trading partner, but most of the human migration—legal and otherwise—takes place east of the Great Lakes, undoubtedly because migrants expect they can blend in and find jobs in big cities like Toronto and New York. Few people try to sneak over at unofficial crossings in either direction, according to Ed Duda, deputy chief of the Border Patrol's Buffalo Sector, which counted 65 heading for the U.S. last year. "We're not exactly being overrun," says Duda.

Could the safe-third-country rule change that? "I can't give my opinion on the agreement," Duda demurs, "but from experience I think we can assume that people who think they will be rejected going the official route will find another way to get into Canada." And they'll try the only way they can in an area that is all water boundary: by crossing the river. Duda doesn't recommend it. Though the Niagara is only half a mile wide—it takes 15 or 20 minutes to paddle across in a rowboat—the current rushing from Niagara Falls is so strong that when Border Patrol does find a body in the river, "the coroner can have trouble identifying who it is. They can be stripped of their clothing and—excuse me for being gory—even their body parts. Sometimes you can't even recognize that it's a body part until you get real close to it."

But like the estimated 300 people who died last year in overheated trucks, or on long, parched walks coming up from Mexico, those desperate to get into Canada are likely to risk it—even though they're entering from the U.S., a "safe third country."

There are myriad reasons, chief among them that refugees want to be reunited with relatives or friends in communities where their language is spoken and the culture is familiar. Canada, for instance, has large, vibrant concentrations of immigrants from Sri Lanka and Congo, and their compatriots want to join them. But actually trying to choose which country you'd like to live in—or trying to manipulate the system by applying for asylum in both countries—amounts to what supporters of the accord disdain as "forum shopping." Refugees should count themselves lucky to be out of danger, they say, and not get picky about who shelters them. "It's not a matter of shopping for the country that you want," Canada's deputy prime minister, John Manley, said after signing an agreement in principle with U.S. homeland security chief Tom Ridge on June 28. "It's a matter of escaping the oppression that you face."

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