The author is an assistant professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. She directed the collective work Feminist Perspectives in International Relations (PUM, 2022) and wrote the book lose the south (Ecosociety Editions).
The desire of Prime Minister François Legault and the Parti Québécois to close Roxham Road, under federal jurisdiction, is not a solution to migratory entries into the territory. First and foremost, the federal government needs to reform the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement.
According to this agreement signed in 2002, an asylum seeker must seek refuge in the “first safe country” where he sets foot. If this person arrives in Canada by land, he would therefore be deported to the United States to apply for refugee status. The agreement only applies to entry through an official border crossing and does not apply to people with family in the country, unaccompanied minors, or if their entry is in the public interest.
Someone who does not have family in Canada and does not have the means to travel by plane will therefore logically go through another entry point to avoid the agreement.
If we close Roxham Road
Prime Minister Legault is determined to close Roxham Road, the famous eight-kilometre “unofficial” road between Champlain, in New York State, and Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, in Montérégie. Even if the province had the constitutional capacity to do so, this closure would only create even more dangerous paths for migrants.
Rather than putting an end to so-called irregular immigration, closing Roxham Road would push people to find other paths at the risk of their lives. Crossing the Canada-US border on foot at -30°C is not easy. Roxham is therefore a lesser evil. Migrants most often find themselves in contact with a Canadian border agent after crossing the border rather than being anywhere, at any temperature.
Although the authorities are aware of the existence of this “safe” passage, many migrants have perished over the years trying to use it. On January 4, a man was found dead between Roxham and the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing. We can say that he lost the “lottery of birth”.
As long as the Safe Third Country Agreement exists, few undocumented people will pass through an “official” border crossing anyway. Because if they do, they will be sent back to the United States immediately.
By suspending this agreement and letting asylum seekers pass through official points without being disturbed, the migratory flow between the United States and Quebec would be more secure and better distributed among the provinces. The need to close Roxham Road would become virtually obsolete, since asylum seekers could enter the country formally without being sent back.
Advocacy organizations have long opposed this deal. In July 2020, a collective of organizations including the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches and Amnesty International asked the Federal Court of Canada to look into the matter. The court initially concluded that the Agreement was unconstitutional.
Judge Ann Marie McDonald agreed with the plaintiffs, saying that the provisions of the law violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the right “to life, liberty and security of the person”. The deal, she said, has the effect of sentencing many inadmissible asylum seekers to US prison.
The Canadian government appealed the judgment. In April 2021, the Federal Court of Appeal reversed the first judgment. According to the court, the negative consequences do not arise from the agreement, but from its application by the authorities. The Supreme Court of Canada has since agreed to hear the case. The judgment should come in the next few months.
The United States, a safe country?
The question remains: is the United States “a safe country” for everyone? Washington has much stricter rules than Canada regarding the reception and accommodation of migrants, and is more likely to return asylum seekers in unsafe conditions.
For example, after Washington refused to grant her asylum in 2019, 31-year-old transgender woman Camila Díaz Córdova was deported to El Salvador. Her assassination a few months later is gruesome proof that her life was indeed in danger and that she should have been granted refugee status.
The UN has also denounced human rights violations in US border control institutions, including the separation of thousands of migrant families and their confinement in makeshift prisons. The Trump administration had also wanted to put an end to a regulation aimed at limiting the detention of foreign minors to 20 days.
Last October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was renegotiating the Safe Third Country Agreement to “ensure that our principles and values” are respected. Remember that suspending the agreement would not mean that all asylum applications would be accepted, but at least that they would not automatically be considered inadmissible if the applicants arrive on foot through the American border.