Five years later, Kate Onakpo still remembers the moment, standing at the side of a short dirt road, when she grabbed her daughter and then entered Canada.
“My life changed from there. My new journey for me and my child started from that minute,” Onakpo recalled recently.
Like many asylum seekers, she entered Canada through Roxham Road, a busy unofficial border crossing in Hemmingford, 50 kilometers south of Montreal.
Onakpo and her daughter arrived in 2017 with a wave of Nigerian compatriots.
For the past five years, she has worked as a health care aide in Montreal – often bathing, feeding and caring for elderly patients.
In a recent interview, Onakpo said she left her home country to be away from her ex-husband.
In a bid to protect her daughter, Onakpo quit her job in Lagos and headed to the United States, where she stayed for a week, before heading north.
Roxham Road was closed for much of the pandemic but reopened last November.
Quebec calls for its closure once again. Premier Francois Legault said the province cannot house all incoming asylum seekers.
“It’s unacceptable,” Legault said earlier this month. “It’s impossible because we don’t have the capacity.”
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose passage the federal government regulates, quickly dismissed the idea, saying closing the road would not stop asylum seekers from crossing the border.
Images of migrants entering Canada at Roxham Road have been the source of heated debate at the provincial and federal levels for years.
But for newcomers like Onakpo, Roxham Road represents a path to a new life.
“I found hope here,” Onakpo said, speaking from his home in Montreal.
Thousands make the trip
Upon arriving in Quebec, Onakpo pursued a job in healthcare and quickly found work in a sector that struggles to recruit and retain workers.
She said the job fit well with her tendency to help and care for others.
But she also struggled with her uncertain legal status. After her first asylum application was rejected, Onakpo turned to a therapist.
“At that point, I just thought I needed help,” she said. “It almost cost me my life. It wasn’t easy for me at all.”
Onakpo appealed the decision and eventually became a permanent resident in 2020.
More than 7,000 asylum seekers illegally crossed the border between Quebec and the United States between January and March of this year, according to the federal government. This is nearly 3,000 more arrivals in three months than in the whole of 2021.
“Asylum seekers, by definition, do not flee their country by choice. It is by obligation, ”said Stéphanie Valois, president of the Quebec Association of Immigration Lawyers (AQAADI).
For geographical reasons, it is a complicated journey to arrive in Canada, she says.
“We are isolated,” Valois said. “Unless you come by plane, which is quite limiting because there are not many people who can obtain a visa, you have to come geographically.”
Roxham Road has become a key entry point under the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, which states that asylum seekers must seek protection in the safe country they first enter.
This means that asylum seekers who arrive in Canada from the United States using an unofficial port of entry can continue their claim in Canada without being sent back south of the border.
Marjorie Villefranche, director of Maison d’Haiti, a community organization that works closely with many newcomers to Montreal, said between 30 and 40 asylum seekers who crossed Roxham Road arrive at the center each day. .
“What we’re seeing now is that these asylum seekers are people who arrived via the United States, but the United States was just a transition period for them,” Villefranche said.
“Their ultimate goal was to come to Canada.”
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From ‘desperate situation’ to ‘essential work’
James Moline, originally from Haiti, crossed the border in June 2017 with his three children, all under the age of 16. Two months later, his wife, who was living in the United States, joined them.
“It was perfect because the family was together again,” Moline said.
Like many newcomers, Moline and his wife were drawn to the health sector because of the large number of jobs available. Moline said he was studying to become a nursing assistant, while his wife worked as a nurse’s aide.
The family received residency status in December 2021, four years after their initial application.
“It was like a Christmas present,” Moline said.
Another asylum seeker, who asked not to be named for security reasons, sees crossing the border as an opportunity for migrants to make the best of a “desperate situation”.
The 38-year-old Jamaican fell on Roxham Road in 2018.
WATCH | The Roxham Road debate plays with people’s ‘only hope’, claims one asylum seeker:
He was on his way to work as a machine operator when he heard that Legault was asking for Roxham Road to be closed.
“To me, it’s ironic because a lot of people who have been through Roxham Road, like me, have been working essential work,” he said. “I know people who do two jobs, who work between 15 and 20 hours a day and they are people from Roxham Road.”
He says he is lucky but fears that he will not be able to stay in Quebec. His last appeal was rejected by the Federal Court and he now faces deportation.
“It’s a very anxiety-inducing time,” he said.
For his part, Onakpo moved into his Montreal home in LaSalle. But she is aware that this news can be upsetting for the migrants who arrive.
“I can’t imagine getting to this point and the road is closed. I wouldn’t know what to do, where to go, with a child.”