A small road straddling the Canada-U.S. border has become a political hot potato again in recent weeks as politicians call on Ottawa to close it to migrants claiming asylum.
Quebec Premier François Legault recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to close Roxham Road to asylum-seekers. Thousands of them have crossed into Canada from the United States at Roxham in recent years.
Legault claimed that the influx of people waiting to have their claims heard has put heavy pressure on the province’s public services. In a similar letter published Tuesday in the Globe and Mail, Legault asked other provinces to help.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre also has called on Trudeau to close Roxham Road. Trudeau himself said Wednesday the government is working on shutting down the irregular border crossing. But it’s not at all clear how Ottawa could do that.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is Roxham Road?
Roxham Road is bisected by the Canada-U.S. Border between Quebec and New York. It sits about 50 km south of Montreal.
The road is a well-travelled unofficial border crossing for asylum seekers hoping to enter Canada.
Roxham used to be a dirt road with a ditch marking the border near the municipality of Hemmingford, Que. It has since been paved on the Canadian side.
Despite its status as an unofficial crossing, Roxham Road has a semi-permanent RCMP post set up by the federal government where police officers can begin processing asylum claims.
Why are people crossing at Roxham Road?
Since 2017, Canada has seen an influx of refugee claimants crossing the U.S. border at various unofficial entry points.
Asylum seekers are barred from entering Canada at official border points under the Safe Third Country Agreement. The agreement states that asylum seekers who enter the U.S. or Canada must make their claims in the first country they arrive in, because the two countries share similar approaches to immigration.
But the treaty has a loophole big enough to walk through: it doesn’t cover unofficial points of entry like Roxham Road. The Roxham crossing sits between two official border crossings, one of which is roughly 5 km away.
It is against the law for an asylum claimant to cross the border anywhere other than at an official port of entry. But once someone is in Canada, they’re legally allowed to apply for asylum, which is a step toward refugee status.
According to federal government statistics, more than 39,000 people claimed asylum in Quebec in 2022 after crossing into Canada outside official ports of entry. Only about 369 people claimed asylum after crossing at a non-official point of entry elsewhere in the country.
Can Roxham Road be closed?
It’s an unofficial crossing — so technically, Roxham Road is closed already. RCMP officers stationed at Roxham notify those who cross that they will be arrested once they set foot on the Canadian side.
Poilievre did not say how Roxham could be shut down. He noted that Roxham Road crossings largely stopped at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Canada and the U.S. signed an agreement to turn back asylum-seekers attempting to cross the border outside of official points in 2020. But that agreement was part of a larger suite of pandemic border measures. The ban was lifted as overall border measures began to ease.
WATCH | Ottawa under pressure to close Roxham Road border crossing
Renegotiating Safe Third Country Agreement won’t stop irregular migration: ambassador
“Whatever you do to the Safe Third Country Agreement is … going to do very little about irregular migration,” said U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen. “If you’re serious about trying to deal with irregular migration, you have to deal with the underlying causes.”
On Wednesday, Trudeau dismissed any suggestion that the crossing could be closed by anything but a renegotiated Safe Third Country Agreement.
But U.S. Ambassador David Cohen pushed back on Trudeau’s claim in a recent interview with CBC News Network’s Power & Politics. Cohen said renegotiating the deal would do “very little” to address irregular migration and that the two countries should instead focus on addressing the “underlying causes of irregular migration.”
Following Cohen’s comments, Trudeau said he plans to bring up the Safe Third Country Agreement when U.S. President Joe Biden visits Canada next month.
WATCH | Renegotiating border treaty won’t stop irregular migration: ambassador
Ottawa faces pressure to close Roxham Road border crossing
The federal government is facing significant pressure to close the Roxham Road irregular border crossing in Quebec that’s being used by an increasing number of migrants to get into Canada from the United States.
In the past, some Conservatives have called on the government to designate the entire border as an official crossing to address the situation at Roxham. But doing so would still require negotiations with the U.S.
While thousands of asylum seekers have crossed at Roxham Road, others have made perilous journeys elsewhere along the border through deep snow and freezing temperatures, putting their lives at risk.
Physically erecting a barrier at Roxham could drive asylum-seekers to other unofficial crossings that could be much less safe.
This is not the first time Roxham Road has become a hot political topic. During the 2019 federal election campaign, then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer promised to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement if his party won.
During that same campaign, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party would suspend the agreement with the U.S. so that migrants would not need to cross outside of official border points.
But concerns are starting to trickle down to the local level as well.
Part of Legault’s recent campaign to stem the flow of asylum–seekers crossing at Roxham Road is a push to have claimants transferred to other provinces.
Legault has said refugee claimants are pushing the province’s social services to their limits.
Francophone asylum seekers who crossed the border in Quebec but have been transported to other provinces reportedly have struggled to receive services due to language barriers.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says it began transferring migrants arriving in Quebec to cities like Ottawa and Niagara Falls, Ont. in July as Quebec’s shelter system — and hotels rented by IRCC — reached capacity.
One community group in Ontario’s Niagara region said it already was dealing with requests for assistance from asylum seekers that had tripled in number before the government began transferring more claimants earlier this month.
The mayor of Cornwall, Ont. is also calling on the federal government to provide more resources to support a recent influx of asylum seekers.
Earlier this week, Atlantic premiers said they’d be willing to host asylum seekers arriving in Quebec but would need federal support to do so. Trudeau said Thursday that his government would offer such assistance.