A migrant confronts a police officer at the infamous Roxham Road “irregular” border crossing between Quebec and New York state. CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Crisis? What crisis?

  • March 23, 2023

Coming out of the trees and across the ditch, past the blue barrels near Roxham Road on Aug. 22, 2018, Hana Atieh was just praying that the officer in the green vest yelling at her and her three children was Canadian.

“Once we saw him and he said we are in Canada, I just kissed the ground,” said Atieh. “I literally just went down on my knees and grabbed some dirt. I remember, I could not believe I was in Canada. I remember the smell of the dirt, like when I smelled the earth. I cannot ever forget that.”

The day before Atieh spoke with The Catholic Register, she received notice that her family’s permanent resident status was confirmed and permanent resident cards would be on their way soon. At the other end of a nightmare escape from daily abuse in Dubai, Atieh lives in gratitude for everything she has found in Canada.

“Every time I take a bite of my food here, I am grateful for every hand that has touched it and made it possible in every single way,” she said.

But on news feeds, on social media and in political conversations, the people who have followed Atieh to Roxham Road, which borders on New York state about 50 km south of Montreal, are portrayed as a threat to Canada and its immigration system. That kind of talk bothers the Jesuit Refugee Service, which issued a call for Canadians to remember during Lent the Bible’s commands about welcoming the stranger and the story of the Good Samaritan.

JRS “denounce(s) the mis-characterization of refugee claimants as illegals and queue jumpers by a number of people, most importantly some politicians,” spokesperson Armande Kra said. 

Even if Roxham Road crossings have gone from 20,593 in 2017 to 39,540 in 2022, the raw numbers are not the crisis, Kra said.

“The crisis is not because of the number of refugee claimants that are arriving in Canada,” she said. “It is because the federal government has not put in place what is needed to process these claims.”

Over 100,000 people claimed asylum in Canada last year, including the 39,000 at Roxham Road, but they represent just a tiny fraction of over 89 million migrants worldwide forced to flee in 2021, said the Canadian Council for Refugees.

“Canada should be showing leadership and leading by example in adapting to larger numbers of refugees, and not closing our doors,” the CCR said.

When Atieh hears people say Roxham Road represents a crisis for Canada and its immigration system, she emphatically disagrees.

“No! It’s not a crisis! It’s a celebration of humanity,” she said.

It’s hard to conceive of anyone thinking the hardworking, polite and perceptive Atieh, with her three chess-playing, A-student children, represents a threat to Canada’s peace, order and good government. Immigration law professor at Detroit Mercy University Alex Vernon calls Atieh “one of the bravest people I have ever known.”

Vernon runs an immigration law clinic for Detroit Mercy law students that takes classes to the Mexican border with the United States as well as Roxham Road. Before Canadians start talking about a crisis, they should consider the situation at the southern border of the U.S., he said.

“People going out, walking the dog, finding human remains at the side of the road — migrants within the border zone who die — that’s the real crisis,” Vernon said. “I’m concerned that Canada, the Canadian government through their policies, they’re okay with that coming north.”

The Immigration and Refugee Board eventually confirms Roxham Road border crossers are legitimate refugees under Canadian and international law by a ratio of about three to two. Out of more than 81,000 irregular migrants over a five-year period, the IRB has accepted 30,518 asylum claims from irregular border crossings and rejected 20,680. There are more than 23,000 cases pending, a number rising quickly. 

Escaping life-threatening abuse, then crossing the globe to make a desperate dash across the border is no easy way out of normal immigration procedures, Atieh said. “There’s nothing that can prepare you for this, nothing,” she said.  

Her escape from Dubai to Los Angeles, then a flight to New York, followed by a car ride with a bungling, frightened smuggler, who dropped her and the children off on a country road within sight of the border, was really only the first hurdle in a series of tests. 

Talking about coming through the border, or just borders, is difficult for Atieh.

“I hate it. I hate this word (border). It does things to me. It changes me physically,” she said.

At the RCMP’s somewhat makeshift office for an initial interview in French with an Arabic interpreter helping over the phone, the RCMP officer said to Attieh, “You seem very nervous, really scared. What are you scared of?”

“I thought to myself, I even told him, ‘I’m not supposed to be scared? I thought that was
normal.’ ”

The policeman asked, “if any males in my family had ever physically assaulted me or beat me?”

She said she was speechless. Every male in her family had beat her. But mostly her ex-husband, who had used Atieh as a sponge for all his resentments and anger.

It wasn’t just domestic abuse that drove Atieh out of Dubai. She is a Palestinian Jordanian and third-generation refugee. Her ex-husband was Palestinian from Gaza. When her son was born in Jordan, she was informed her son could not have Jordanian citizenship or any sort of recognized status. As the son of a Gazan, her son was Gazan. Nobody from Gaza (controlled by Hamas) could remain in Jordan. The  new mother was told she could stay in Jordan, but her baby would have to leave.

Dubai was supposed to be the solution to that problem. But Dubai also would not grant any official status or citizenship to Atieh’s Gazan children — though they had never been to Gaza.   

Her experience of living without status in Dubai made the idea of trying the U.S. refugee system unthinkable. The image of the U.S. as a dark force behind the wars and dysfunction in the Middle East was added onto the pictures of refugee children separated from their parents in cages along the Mexican border, which spread like wildfire across social media.

The United States is not a safe option for many refugees, said the Canadian Council for Refugees.

“Forcing refugee claimants back to the U.S. means condemning some of them to detention in atrocious conditions and possible return to persecution in their countries of origin,” the CCR said.

That’s exactly the case the Canadian Council of Churches, Amnesty International and CCR made before the Supreme Court of Canada last year. A decision to either uphold or strike down the Safe Third Country Agreement as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is expected this summer.

Where Quebec Premier François Legault has complained that too much of the burden has fallen on Quebec’s social services, Ottawa is responding with deals to spread the asylum seekers across the country. As of Feb. 26 more than 7,000 Roxham Road refugee claimants had been shipped to Ontario this year — mostly to Niagara Falls and Toronto. 

As a social worker for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Odey Armstrong has seen a fair number of Roxham Road refugee claimants and other “precarious migrant situations.” The biggest challenge is finding housing that doesn’t exist for people whose earning potential falls far below the megacity’s skyrocketing rents.

The problem isn’t the young adult students Armstrong deals with at Msgr. Fraser College.

“They are in class, they’re doing their work, they’re looking for jobs,” she said. “I just feel so stuck, because living in a shelter is not easy. But with that, they are still coming every day, engaging and doing what we want everyone to do.” 

Armstrong meets former refugee students who are now working, in college or at university. Young people who made the trek from Afghanistan, Venezuela, Haiti — sometimes alone — are ready and willing to integrate into Canadian society, but the social worker wishes she could do more to ease their way.

“I absolutely know that there is a crisis around resources,” she said.

In 2018, Atieh and her children were bused from Roxham Road to a shelter in Montreal, where she was interviewed by Quebec social services. But she had never intended to stay in Montreal. As soon as possible, she was on a train to Windsor. She had read about a welcome centre there, but it was full. She and the children were sent to a downtown mission shelter for the homeless.

“Then I had a panic attack, because it was all so scary,” she said. “An ambulance was called. My (11-year-old) son (Samir) told me this. I remember being in a hospital, in a dark room. And then I saw the kids on the floor. I just burst into tears. I could not imagine. It was below rock bottom.”

But the hospital had a cure for Atieh’s fear and anxiety. There was a nurse who could speak some enough Arabic to reassure her. A hospital social worker was able to get Atieh and the kids into a motel that was functioning as a shelter. 

After a month at the motel there was a more supportive environment at Matthew House. There she began volunteering. The Palestinian with a law degree from University of Jordan and an online human resources certification from the U.S. was a quick learner, determined to help. She went from volunteer at Matthew House to employee — first reception, then fundraising assistant.

As a law professor, Vernon certainly can distinguish between refugees and economic migrants. But after talking to hundreds of refugees at both the southern and northern borders of the U.S. he has also learned about the grey areas.

“People who are just coming for a better life, it seems that a lot of them are desperate enough to end up in life-threatening situations on their way here. I don’t know that there is such a clear dividing line.”

Pope Francis understands there is a crisis, he wrote in his 2018 message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, and it’s about people.

“The response to this crisis cannot be simply to close our doors or to build walls, but to show compassion and solidarity with those who are suffering and to work together to find long-term solutions to the root causes of migration,” he wrote,

As her case went through the IRB process, Atieh was taking English lessons, helping her children with their homework, spending her spare time at library, where she researched Canada. Her children — Samir, Leen and Yasmin who were 11, seven and four when they arrived — were enrolled in school. After three months they moved out of the shelter and into subsidized community housing.

Eventually Atieh landed a job in a Windsor law firm. From there, she moved on to a tech firm in where she could put her HR training to use. In the near term she wants to add Canadian HR certification to her American qualifications. But in the longer term she would like to go to law school and become an immigration lawyer. 

Samir is in high school now and thinking of becoming a surgeon, or a fighter pilot. Her daughters have friends and a million activities. The family remains in its community housing unit, now paying full market rent.

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