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Border Runners: The quiet NY street that leads a steady stream of asylum seekers to Canada

Avery Haines | posted Wednesday, Mar 29th, 2017

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A cab on Roxham Road only means one thing.

Car after car, unloading group after group, each surreptitiously approaching a sign that clearly reads, “Road Closed.”

“This is an international border,” hollers a man standing guard.  “You can’t cross. If you cross, you’ll be arrested.”

But it happens day after day at this juncture in Plattsburgh, New York, where the land changes from America’s to Canada’s in a patch not much larger than the average sidewalk.

On this Tuesday in March, two men get out of their cab and take their first few steps into Canada with their arms stretched up. One man drops to his knees.

“You can stand up,” an RCMP guard is heard telling him.

Ruby Lavalley, who lives in the last house along Roxham Road, sees these scenes play out ten or twenty times a day.

“People coming in, running over the border. They tell them to stop,” she says.  If they cross they’re going to get arrested. But they just proceed over.”

Lavalley’s sense is that the surge of asylum seekers can be credited to her new President, who has promised to crack down on illegal refugees.  They are escaping to Canada to claim refugee status. Illegally crossing is a fast track to getting processed.

Lavalley is astonished that her quiet street has turned into the final steps on the American side of what is now known as the Underground Refugee Railroad.

“[They’re] literally falling just to get on the other side,” she says.

What happens on the other side of this invisible line is also repeated every day. The two men who crossed this morning will be frisked, taken to the legal border crossing just down the way, and then they’ll make their claim for asylum in Canada.

According to the RCMP, in the first two months of 2017, 1,134 asylum seekers crossed the Canadian border illegally. Toronto immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann predicts the numbers will only spike in the coming months.

“We are going to see a steep increase in those numbers,” he says.  “What you are seeing right now, [is] only those people who want to be seen. There are other people who are going further down the fence who do not want to be detected and they’re coming across with the intention of avoiding the system.”

Back in Plattsburgh, yet another group of refugees has made it to the edge of Roxham Road, which ironically is accessed by a road with the title of “North Star.”

A young man and a distraught older couple repeat the words: “Canada, Canada.”

The Canadian police tell them they’re safe.

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