Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
–– from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
From The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1916, 1923, 1928, 1930, 1934, 1939, 1947, 1949, © 1969 by Holt Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1936, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1951, 1953, 1954, © 1956, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962 by Robert Frost. Copyright © 1962, 1967, 1970 by Leslie Frost Ballantine.
Roxham Road, a dead-end rural road in upstate Clinton County near Champlain, New York, is an unofficial/illegal crossing point for immigrants from the U.S. looking for asylum in Canada. Think of it: people going the other way, from the U.S. into another country, for a myriad of reasons. But in light of what’s happening at our southern border, there’s a clear and immediate reason: unlike the U.S., Canada does not separate families, or children from parents, or deny asylum to women escaping domestic abuse, or to those fleeing gang violence. Update: on June 17, 2021, the U.S. Attorney General rescinded the Trump Administration's ban on asylum for those fleeing domestic or gang violence.
The Canada–U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement requires refugees to make an asylum claim in the first safe country they reach. The agreement allows both countries to turn back asylum seekers at border crossings except when they enter through an illegal point of entry––which means that many of those who try to cross from the U.S. into Canada at official border stations are turned away. But a loophole permits asylum claims to be made by individuals who enter Canada covertly.
Refugees who choose unofficial crossings like Roxham Road are arrested, detained, and processed––they mostly know this in advance––but Canada is then obliged by law to house, clothe, and feed them until their cases are heard. Their crossing is not considered criminal when they present a compelling case for asylum. Their cases usually take several months to adjudicate, and they are not held in cages or detention centers, instead farmed out to existing accommodations like shelters, YWCAs, or transient hotels in Montreal or other smaller cities and towns in Quebec. Some go on to Ontario Province. Only about 40% of all asylum claims are successful, and refugees have to prove their cases, or they are deported to their home countries.
I went to Roxham Road in May 2018. The Underground Railroad template still pertained: you got to Roxham Road via North Star Road––named for the slave directive to “follow the North Star” to Canada. The refugees from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Columbia, Iraq, Nigeria, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, El Salvador, and Eastern Europe seeking entry to Canada were not slaves, but they were seeking freedom. As in all other years, some were undocumented and were simply fleeing the U.S. Others were legal residents of the U.S. who, despite their status, feared future tightening of restrictive laws, or who had waited for years for the U.S. government to act on their asylum claims and grew tired of waiting, then finally desperate. Of the estimated 100,000 enslaved people who fled the American South between 1810 and 1850, about 40,000 made it to Canada with assistance from the Underground Railroad. But from January through June 2018 alone, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police “apprehended” 10,261 people crossing the border illegally into Quebec.
As in the nineteenth century, there were quiet underground networks––economic, political, humanitarian––that helped the refugees along the way. They arrived in Plattsburgh in all seasons, mostly by bus, via New York City and Albany: families with children, women and men alone, loaded with luggage and bags, slung with backpacks and babies. Then waiting taxis or Uber drivers (there's a network of both; see the link * below) transported them about thirty miles to the parking lot at the end of Roxham Road, where they walked down a dirt path over a ditch into Canada. On the other side, the RCMP I saw were almost tender with the children, who made up, I’d estimate, half of the crossers. The “greeters,” both U.S. and Canadian citizens who met the immigrants in the parking lot just before they crossed, gave snacks, clothing, and toys to the children, and hugs and reassurance to the adults. They, and the other citizens who contributed to the various networks, have been called twenty-first-century abolitionists by those who remember our U.S. history.
By 2019, the flow of immigrants had slowed somewhat, and there was a two-year backlog in processing asylum applications. The RCMP constructed a large tent for themselves and the refugees. A border fence was proposed that would block the crossing completely. There was concerted talk by Canada of cancelling the Safe Third Country Agreement. My main contact at Roxham Road was elected mayor of the border village she lives in.
The entire U.S.–Canada border is now closed because of COVID-19, although the Roxham Road crossing is still open. But refugees who still come and want to cross have been turned away, ostensibly from the fear of spreading COVID but in actual violation of the Safe Third Country Agreement. Those denied have apparently been assured that when the border reopens, they will be notified and can “come back”—but no one believes this. Most have been returned to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and put into the large immigration detention facility in Batavia, New York, near Buffalo. In mid-May 2021, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers sued the Canadian government on the grounds that it fails to consider the situation of asylum seekers and whether they have reasonable alternatives available, and that the policy also denies asylum-seekers their right to a hearing.
Some of these photographs were exhibited as a photo essay at the Liberty Con 2019 Art Exhibition: Unique Perspectives (an adjunct to the Underground Railroad Public History Conference), at the Albany Visitors Center in downtown Albany.
* An excellent 18+-minute documentary, “Road to Roxham,” by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) on the “refugee taxis”: https://youtu.be/k9EC6CZ1T5U