BUFFALO, NEW YORKIt'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 customersthis time, a family from Sudan. Croom, 52, once earned his living in the local steel industry, but when the plants closed downdragging Buffalo's economy with themhe 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 passengerswho climb aboard for the last leg of a journey that may have begun as far away as Burundi, Sri Lanka, or ColombiaCroom'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 footthe "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 accordlikely to be signed within a few weeksdoes 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, toothough 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 agentsor "smugglers"who arrange passage. They come through these cities because it's often easier to get flights to the U.S. than to Canadaand 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 INSVive 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 1850which mandated the return of runaway slaves to their owners no matter where in the Union they were capturedBuffalo 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."
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 daywith only the colorful dress on her back, no documents or luggagesaid 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 problemthat just knocked me out."
The Canadian-U.S. border stretches 4000 milestwice 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 migrationlegal and otherwisetakes 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 wideit takes 15 or 20 minutes to paddle across in a rowboatthe 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 andexcuse me for being goryeven 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 iteven 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 inor trying to manipulate the system by applying for asylum in both countriesamounts 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."
But advocates regard this policy as needlessly heartless and unrealisticnot to mention in violation of principles of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These are refugees, after all, who have experienced violence, persecution, possibly even torture. Their lives have been in total upheaval. Isn't it logical that a French-speaking Rwandan, for instance, would prefer Québec to New Jersey? What is more, typically when people apply for asylum in both countries, it's because the system forces them to. Refugees on their way to Canada who are nabbed by the INS in America can stave off deportationthough not always detentiononly by applying for asylum here. That may not have been their intention, but their way to Canada was blocked.
Both governments say they are dealing with those cultural issues by allowing exceptions for family members, unaccompanied minors, and others. But advocates respond that these are ill defined and difficult to prove. Wendy Young of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children notes, for instance, that the provision for relatives is "tied to a Western conception of nuclear family." African women who lose their husbands and end up as single heads of households often turn to the husband's brother for financial and emotional supportbut in-laws are not authorized by the agreement.
Meanwhile, if someone does claim to have, say, a sibling in Canada, what will happen to her while the CIC goes through the process of confirming that? And how will they do it? "Refugees often don't have documents establishing their own identity," says Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "And even if they do have them, how do you prove that somebody is your sister? Nobody carries around a family tree certified by some authority."
Differences in immigration law and policy between the U.S. and Canada also account for some people's passion to go north. Asylum applicants in the U.S., for example, are refused any authorization to work for a minimum of five months, while those in Canada are permitted to seek jobs right away. Canada's eastern provinces also provide free legal representation to refugees, unlike the U.S. Most important, perhaps, while both countries define refugees as people unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality because of a "well-founded fear of persecution" on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, Canada in some instances grants a little more benefit of the doubt.
Immigration attorneys in the U.S. tell countless stories of asylum seekers who had clearly been abused but were denied status because the reason they suffered violenceor the people who attacked themdid not fall into one of the official categories. Colombians who get caught in the crossfire between guerrillas and paramilitaries, for instance, don't fare well in the U.S., which often regards them as being persecuted only out of bad luck. Canada has its share of seemingly arbitrary rulings, too, advocates say, but unlike the U.S., says Dench, in Canada "we don't bend over backwards" to try to prove that a claimant experienced persecution for some reason the law doesn't recognize.
The Sudanese mom in the front seat of Jon Croom's Crown Victoria shudders when asked what she'd do if she were turned back at the Peace Bridge and told she'd have to ask for asylum in America. "It's not possible" is all she will say.
Were she returned, she'd have to make her request to the already overburdened INS, where it takes as much as two years for an asylum case to be resolvedor more if the decision is appealed. Nonetheless, the Bush administration is poised to clinch an agreement with Canada that is likely to throw thousands of new cases into the logjam. They're trying to "fix a system that ain't broke," says Bill Frelick, director of Amnesty International-USA's Refugee Program, and in doing so, are "creating new sets of problems."
At Vive, Owens and his staff are bracing for the day word gets out to refugees that the agreement is going forward: In May and June, they were overwhelmed by 1500 refugees coming in through Buffalo, trying to beat new restrictions in Canadian immigration law that went into effect on June 28. Owens expects an even bigger onslaught as the safe-third-country accord moves inexorably forward.
While Owens wants to see those who prefer Canada to be admitted up north, he has dreamy visions of what could happen with those who are rejected: "We should welcome them to settle in Buffalo," he suggests, sitting in his office in the ramshackle neighborhood where there's not a fresh vegetable or newspaper on sale for miles. "The people who come through hereengineers, physicians, teachersare a tremendous resource. They have talent and optimism and want to work hard. We need that energy in Buffalo."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.