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Back road to hope: Migrants flood Canada at remote outpost

August 9, 2017


Associated Press

CHAMPLAIN, N.Y. — They have come from all over the United States, piling out of taxis, pushing strollers and pulling luggage, to the end of a country road in the north woods.

Where the pavement stops, they pick up small children and lead older ones wearing Mickey Mouse backpacks around a “road closed” sign, threading bushes, crossing a ditch, and filing past another sign in French and English that says “No pedestrians.” Then they are arrested.

Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, migrants who came to the U.S. from across the globe — Syria, Congo, Haiti, elsewhere — arrive here where Roxham Road dead-ends so they can walk into Canada, hoping its policies will give them the security they believe the political climate in the United States does not.

“In Trump’s country, they want to put us back to our country,” said Lena Gunja, a 10-year-old from Congo, who until this week had been living in Portland, Maine. She was traveling with her mother, father and younger sister. “So we don’t want that to happen to us, so we want a good life for us. My mother, she wants a good life for us.”

The passage has become so crowded this summer that Canadian police set up a reception center on their side of the border in the Quebec community of Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Montreal, or almost 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of New York City.

It includes tents that have popped up in the past few weeks, where migrants are processed before they are turned over to the Canada Border Services Agency, which handles their applications for refuge.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are adding electricity and portable toilets. A Canadian flag stands just inside the first tent, where the Mounties search the immigrants they’ve just arrested and check their travel documents. They are also offered food. Then shuttle buses take the processed migrants to their next destination. Trucks carry their luggage separately.

The Canadian military said Wednesday that about 100 soldiers began arriving to prepare a site for tents to accommodate almost 500 people. The soldiers will also install lighting and heating equipment.

How this spot, not even an official border crossing, became the favored place to cross into Canada is anyone’s guess. But once migrants started going there, word spread on social media.

Under the 2002 Safe Country Agreement between the United States and Canada, migrants seeking asylum must apply to the first country they arrive in. If they were to go to a legal port of entry, they would be returned to the United States and told to apply there.

But, in a quirk in the application of the law, if migrants arrive in Canada at a location other than a port of entry, such as Roxham Road, they are allowed to request refugee status there.

Many take buses to Plattsburgh, New York, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south. Some fly there, and others take Amtrak. Sometimes taxis carry people right up to the border. Others are let off up the road and have to walk, pulling their luggage behind them.

Used bus tickets litter the pavement, their points of origin mostly blurred by rain that fell on nights previous. One read “Jacksonville.”

One Syrian family said they flew into New York City on tourist visas and then went to Plattsburgh, where they took a taxi to the border.

The migrants say they are driven by the perception that the age of Republican President Donald Trump, with his ban on travelers from certain majority-Muslim countries, means the United States is no longer the destination of the world’s dispossessed. Taking its place in their minds is the Canada of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a member of his country’s Liberal Party.

Most of the people making the crossing now are originally from Haiti. The Trump administration said this year it planned to end in January a special humanitarian program enacted after the 2010 earthquake that gave about 58,000 Haitians permission to stay temporarily in the U.S.

Walking toward the border in a group on Monday, Medyne Milord, 47, originally of Haiti, said she needs work to support her family.

“If I return to Haiti, the problem will double,” she said. “What I hope is to have a better life in Canada.”

Jean Rigaud Liberal, 38, said he had been in the United States for seven months and lived in Florida after he left Haiti. He learned about Roxham Road from Facebook and said he thinks “Canada will be better than America.”

“We are not comfortable in America,” said Liberal. “We are seeking a better life; we don’t want to go back to Haiti.”

On the New York side, U.S. Border Patrol agents sometimes check to be sure the migrants are in the United States legally, but they said they don’t have the resources to do it all the time.

Besides, said Brad Brant, a special operations supervisor for the U.S. Border Patrol, “our mission isn’t to prevent people from leaving.”

Small numbers continue to cross into Canada elsewhere, but the vast majority take Roxham Road. U.S. officials said they began to notice last fall, around the time of the U.S. presidential election, that more people were crossing there.

Francine Dupuis, the head of a Quebec government-funded program that helps asylum seekers, said her organization estimates 1,174 people overall crossed into Quebec last month, compared with 180 in July 2016. U.S. and Canadian officials estimated that on Sunday alone, about 400 people crossed the border at Roxham Road.

“All they have to do is cross the border,” Dupuis said. “We can’t control it. They come in by the hundreds, and it seems to be increasing every day.”

Canada said last week it planned to house some migrants in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. It could hold thousands, but current plans call for only 450.

In most cases, once the migrants are in Canada they are released and can live freely while their claims for refugee status are processed, which can take years. Meanwhile, they are eligible for public assistance.

Brenda Shanahan, the Liberal Party member of Parliament who represents the area, visited the site Monday. She is proud of her country for being willing to take in the dispossessed, she said, but there is no guarantee they will be able to stay in Canada.

“It’s not a free ticket for refugee status, not at all,” Shanahan said.

Opposition Conservative lawmaker Michelle Rempel said the Trudeau government lacks a plan to deal with the illegal crossings, even though a summer spike had been anticipated.

“All that we have heard is that we are monitoring the situation,” she said. “The government needs to come up with a plan right away to deal with this.”

It will further backlog a system in which some refugees are already waiting 11 years for hearings, Rempel said. Canadians will question the integrity of the immigration system if the “dangerous trend” of illegal crossings continues, she said.

Trudeau himself recently said his country has border checkpoints and controls that need to be respected.

“We have an open compassionate country, but we have a strong system that we follow,” he said. “Protecting Canadian confidence in the integrity of our system allows us to continue to be open, and that’s exactly what we need to continue to do.”

Inancieu Merilien, originally of Haiti, moved to the United States in 2000 but crossed into Canada late last month. U.S. authorities, he said, are trying to scare Haitians by refusing to guarantee they’ll be able to stay.

“There’s a big difference here. They welcomed us very well,” he said after leaving the Olympic Stadium to begin looking for a home in Montreal’s large Haitian community. “They’re going to give us housing in apartments. I hope everything goes well.”

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto, Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Patrick Lejtenyi in Montreal.

Venezuela May Be on the Brink of Civil War

We must support a negotiated solution or risk higher gas prices in U.S.

By Gabriel Hetland

The Nation

News from Venezuela is coming fast and furiously. On July 30, the country held a highly controversial election to appoint a new Constituent Assembly, which will rewrite the Constitution and rule Venezuela for up to two years. The vote unfolded amid the worst violence that Venezuela has seen in the four-month-old conflict that broke out in April. At least 10 people, including a candidate for the Assembly, were killed. Opposition protesters attacked 200 voting centers, according to the government. And eight National Police officers suffered serious burns from a roadside bomb set off in the wealthy, pro-opposition Caracas neighborhood of Altamira.

Since the vote occurred, Venezuela has been mired in controversy, particularly over the number of people who voted. (This figure is important because it is seen as a measure of the government’s level of popular support.) The government claims that over 8 million people voted. This number has been widely rejected as fraudulent not only by the opposition (which has a long history of falsely alleging electoral fraud), but also by Smartmatic, the company that supplied voting machines for the election; the sole opposition rector on Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE); and a number of prominent dissident Chavista officials, most notably former attorney general Luisa Ortega and Andrés Izarra, communications minister under both Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.

If electoral fraud has occurred, it would be a severe blow to the government’s legitimacy, as well as a major departure from the past, when, in Jimmy Carter’s words, Venezuela’s election process was “the best in the world.” It is difficult to dismiss the current claims of electoral fraud out of hand, for five reasons. First, the CNE did not follow the procedures typically used to guarantee the vote’s accuracy: Voters’ fingers were not marked with indelible ink; the vote was not audited in the normal manner (partly due to the opposition boycott of the election); and the CNE has yet to release the full results (e.g., the number of valid and null votes), something that is normally done within hours of an election’s end. Second, it is not just the “usual suspects” (the opposition and the US government) claiming fraud this time. Third, Smartmatic has supplied Venezuela’s voting machines since 2004, but this is the first time that it has stated the election results were altered. According to Smartmatic’s CEO, the government’s announced vote total was off by at least 1 million. Fourth, this is the first time that a CNE rector has invalidated an election result outright. Finally, the continuing deterioration of Venezuela’s economy makes it hard to believe that support for the government has increased by 2.5 million since December 2015, when 5.6 million people voted for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in legislative elections. For their part, government supporters claim that not everyone who voted was Chavista: Some people allegedly voted not to support the government but rather to end the violence wracking the country. This claim is not implausible, but it does not address the first four points raised above.

Government repression and intolerance are growing.

The decision to push ahead with the Constituent Assembly has led to Venezuela’s growing international isolation. As of August 4, the day the Assembly was sworn in, 44 countries had condemned or refused to recognize it, while only six (Russia, Iran, and four left governments in Latin America) had expressed support. Even the Vatican, which has supported Venezuela’s government in the past, has called for the Constituent Assembly to be disbanded. On August 5, Venezuela was suspended from Mercosur, a regional trade bloc. Washington has repeatedly condemned the Constituent Assembly and has imposed sanctions on 14 top officials, including Maduro, in the past two weeks. The United States has threatened sanctions on Venezuelan oil, which would be devastating for ordinary citizens. Venezuela’s isolation is not only diplomatic but also physical, with half a dozen major airlines suspending flights in recent months due to security concerns.

The government’s actions in the week after the vote have been inconsistent. There are signs that repression and intolerance toward dissent are growing. One of the first acts of the newly installed Constituent Assembly was to suspend Attorney General Luisa Ortega, who has been outspoken in her criticism of the government in recent months. On August 1, state security forces transferred two prominent opposition leaders, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, from house arrest to prison. Days later, both were returned to house arrest, raising questions about the balance of “moderates” versus “hard-liners” within the government.

How should members of the international community, particularly those on the left who have supported Chavismo for many years, make sense of recent developments? Does Venezuela deserve the full-throated condemnation it has received from foreign leaders and the mainstream media? Is the government, whatever its faults, a more reliable protector of the interests of the people than the opposition? Should the global left refrain from criticizing the government, at least publicly, out of concern that such criticism may strengthen the hand of malignant domestic and foreign forces opposing Maduro? Is it true that Venezuela “faces a choice between deepening revolution and an elite-enforced rollback,” as George Ciccariello-Maher argues in a recent Jacobin article?

Some of these questions have straightforward answers, while others are far more challenging. (As an aside, this is why the left should engage in open, honest, and civil debate regarding Venezuela, rather than the circular-firing-squad style of argument that has, unfortunately, often prevailed recently.)

While the government deserves criticism for its recent actions, the international frenzy concerning Venezuela is unwarranted and reeks of hypocrisy. Western media, foreign governments, multilateral institutions, and the human-rights establishment employ a double standard for Venezuela. Does it deserve pariah status when countries like Brazil, Mexico, and even Saudi Arabia are welcomed as “normal” members of the international community? Unlike Maduro, who was legitimately elected, Brazil’s Michel Temer came to office through a parliamentary coup. In March, Temer was caught on tape authorizing illegal bribes, but he has remained in office and avoided jail by buying off politicians who are likely even more corrupt. Mexico’s ruling party has systematically blocked efforts to investigate the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, spied on journalists and activists, and used illegal tactics to stay in office. Saudi Arabia has beheaded dozens of pro-democracy activists this year but is still on the UN Human Rights Council. Venezuela’s government and opposition are also subjected to different standards. The government is criticized at every turn, but there is scant criticism of vile opposition actions, including the burning alive of a number of black and brown citizens who “look” Chavista, destruction of public property and government food warehouses, and calls on social media for Chavistas to be summarily executed.

We must support a negotiated solution to the conflict.

It is easy (though very much necessary) to criticize the hypocrisy of Western politicians and media vis-à-vis Venezuela. The same is true concerning opposition leaders who claim to favor democracy but have worked for nearly two decades to overthrow the elected government, and who bemoan the economic crisis and the suffering of the masses but have no concrete plans to revive the economy or ease that suffering. It is also easy to find fault with the Venezuelan government, not only for the highly questionable political actions discussed earlier, but also for its failure to resolve the economic crisis. It is much harder to say whether or not the international left should support the government, particularly in the passive sense of refraining from public criticism.

The agony of the crisis consists of this: Millions of Venezuelans are suffering profoundly. They cannot feed themselves properly or obtain the medicine they need. They have very limited access to basic goods like shampoo, diapers, and toothpaste. This makes daily life a struggle. The primary reason for this situation is the government’s inability or unwillingness to take the necessary steps (in particular, desperately needed currency reform) to ease the crisis. There is little reason to think that the Constituent Assembly will do anything useful, since it is led by the same people who have presided over Venezuela while the crisis has deepened. Most people inside and outside the country, including many Chavistas, seem to agree that the PSUV’s top leadership is rotten. The idea that this group will “deepen” the Bolivarian Revolution seems highly improbable.

And yet it is far from clear that Venezuela’s popular sectors would fare any better under an opposition-led government, which would be likely to privatize state-owned resources, deepen the current de facto austerity regime (arising from government policies that make the poor bear the brunt of the crisis), and quite possibly engage in vindictive action against Chavistas, real and alleged. This is why millions continue to support the government, despite significant misgivings.

The country’s popular sectors are likely to suffer for years to come, whether the PSUV or the opposition is in charge. It is worth asking what series of actions (and inactions) led to this unenviable point. Are there decisions that could have led to a better outcome? If so, why were they not taken? It is also worth asking what Venezuelans will think about Chavismo in 10, 20, or 30 years. (At the moment, it is hard to imagine a positive answer.) These are important questions, but the most pressing one now is this: Of the various plausible scenarios that may unfold in Venezuela over the next few years, which would be most favorable—or, more accurately, least disastrous—for the country’s increasingly desperate majority?

Neither of the two scenarios already mentioned—a continuation of the status quo, or an opposition-led government—is particularly attractive. There is, however, an even worse alternative: civil war, which would only deepen the suffering and likely set Venezuela’s left back for decades. The following factors suggest that civil war is a real possibility: the opposition’s thirst for power and its willingness to engage in violence; the narrowing of space for institutional contestation; the government’s isolation; and a failed August 6 military uprising, which suggests that sectors of the armed forces may be willing to turn against the government.

The international left should do everything in its power to prevent civil war. This means supporting a negotiated solution to the conflict. To be effective, such a solution must offer something to both sides: a credible electoral calendar that provides the opposition with a peaceful path to office, lessening the chance of a military coup (and forcing the opposition to articulate concrete solutions to the crisis); and guarantees for those on the losing side of elections, decreasing the incentive for the government to avoid them at all costs. “Negotiated solution” is hardly a stirring rallying cry. Increasingly, however, it appears that it may be the only way to prevent a tragedy of untold proportions from unfolding in Venezuela.

Gabriel Hetland is assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latino Studies at University at Albany, SUNY. His writings on Venezuelan politics, participatory democracy, capitalism, labor, and social movements have appeared in Qualitative Sociology, Work, Employment and Society, Latin American Perspectives, Jacobin, The Nation, NACLA, and elsewhere.

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Map locates Roxham Road, upstate New York.
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2017/08/web1_ImmigrantsCanada-16.jpgMap locates Roxham Road, upstate New York.

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer informs a migrant couple of the location of a legal border station, shortly before they illegally cross from Champlain, N.Y., to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec, Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. Officials on both sides of the border first began to notice last fall, around the time of the U.S. presidential election, that more people were crossing at Roxham Road. Since then the numbers have continued to climb. Seven days a week, 24-hours a day people from across the globe are arriving at the end of a New York backroad so they can walk across a ditch into Canada knowing they will be instantly arrested, but with the hope the Canadian government will be kinder to them than the United States. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2017/08/web1_ImmigrantsCanada-4.jpgA Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer informs a migrant couple of the location of a legal border station, shortly before they illegally cross from Champlain, N.Y., to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec, Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. Officials on both sides of the border first began to notice last fall, around the time of the U.S. presidential election, that more people were crossing at Roxham Road. Since then the numbers have continued to climb. Seven days a week, 24-hours a day people from across the globe are arriving at the end of a New York backroad so they can walk across a ditch into Canada knowing they will be instantly arrested, but with the hope the Canadian government will be kinder to them than the United States. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

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