How Canada’s border towns are dealing with a growing stream of refugees

How Canada’s border towns are dealing with a growing stream of refugees

Down on the border

Twenty-four hours.
Four provinces.
Seven towns.
What one day on the Canada-U.S. line says about refugees, Canadian tolerance and Trump’s America

It’s a Saturday mid-morning in Emerson, a town of 678 on Manitoba’s southern border. Vince’s dog barks at the front window of his home. A man, dark-skinned with bare feet sticking out of his yellow pants, is crossing the front yard.

Vince, who didn’t want his real name used, knew about Emerson’s border-jumpers, that their numbers were way up this year and that they usually cross illegally overnight. The RCMP’s new patrols normally catch refugee claimants before they wander into the community, but they must have missed this daytime visitor.

Refugee in the back of a pickup truck, Emerson, Man.

A refugee who walked through “Vince’s” yard barefoot; Vince later drove him to a Canadian Border Services Agency facility. Taken at approximately 11:30am on June 18th, 2017.

Vince calls the local RCMP detachment, but when there’s no answer, he jumps in his pickup truck and finds the barefooted visitor, who’s headed toward the highway that leads 110 km to Winnipeg.

“Can I help you?” he hollers.

“I’m looking for the police,” the man replies.

Vince is suspicious—why didn’t the man just wait at the RCMP station rather than hitting the highway? But he is willing to help, or at least go as far as letting the refugee claimant sit in his truck’s bed—not the comfort of the passenger or back seats.

“I would never let him in. Never pick up a hitchhiker either,” Vince reasons.

Canadian border agents, with their security check, will determine if his worries were founded.

Since the turn of the last century, the largely undefended boundary between Canada and the United States has been an example to the world of peace and shared prosperity—something Canadian schoolchildren are taught to cherish, and that leaders of our two countries must praise when they meet. For generations, trade has flowed ever more freely across the line, while we venerated its relative invisibility—when we want to cross for a day of shopping or a road trip, we do that most Canadian of things: we line up.

A single White House occupant, though, has revealed how precarious those notions were. While Donald Trump threatens a thicker border for goods movement, demanding renegotiations to NAFTA while threatening Canadian industries, people in this country have been struck by the boundary’s porousness in the face of migrating humans. Set in motion by Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric and crackdown on undocumented residents, about 27 northbound migrants per day are now traversing the border illegally, forced to enter via remote, unguarded stretches because the Safe Third Country Agreement allows authorities to turn away asylum seekers who arrive at established ports of entry.

By mid-April, the number of border-hopping asylum seekers arriving in Canada had surpassed last year’s total of 2,464. The flow remains steady, which has compelled authorities and border-town residents to adjust to a new reality, reassessing their values and assumptions. In a major national poll conducted this spring by Abacus for Maclean’s, 71 per cent of Canadians called for increased security along the U.S. border—a steady sentiment across the country’s regions and age groups.

Border communities Maclean’s reporters visited: Surrey, B.C.; Blaine, Wash.; Gretna, Man.; Emerson, Man.; London, Ont.; Fort Erie, Ont.; Saint-Bernard-De-Lacolle, Que.; Stanstead, Que.

Border crossings visited by Maclean’s reporters. Lauren Cattermole

On a mid-June weekend, Maclean’s journalists fanned out to document this historic shift over a single 24-hour period (Friday to Saturday evening), visiting well-travelled crossing points in Quebec, Manitoba and B.C., as well as a crossing in Ontario that some refugee claimants can legally use. In these places, they encountered time-honoured Canadian openness in the form of shelters and welcome signs for newcomers, and Mounties warmly greeting migrants even as they arrested them. No less evident, though, was a growing sense of wariness and suspicion, from a Manitoban setting up motion-capture cameras by the border, to a Quebec ultranationalist group’s self-appointed mission to make periodic border visits, allegedly just to “observe.”

Whether refugees cross into Canada over a ditch, a muddy field or simply across a street; whether they’re abandoning the U.S. asylum system or merely preferring ours in the first place, the trend shows no sign of ebbing. What about Canada’s willingness to welcome them?


Smoke from a Marlboro curls past Abdi Hassan’s grey-flecked goatee as he stands outside a former seniors’ residence he’s called home since Tuesday. “My family lives here. In Toronto. I want to see them,” the Somali national says of a “here” that lies 2,000 km away.

Hassan looks to be in his mid-30s. A fellow African migrant who had just crossed the border smokes next to him, but is loath to share his story. Inside, a young girl in a white T-shirt presses her nose to the window, curious about the visitor who’s not allowed inside. A woman in a yellow dress and multicoloured hijab paces in the lounge as she talks into a cellphone.

They’re all spending the night at the “Gretna Reception Centre”—a former retirement home repurposed for newcomers. This southern Manitoba village’s seniors’ facility sat vacant for years until Manitoba Housing decided this spring to make it a transitional shelter for the hundreds of border-hoppers arriving in nearby Emerson (28 km of gravel road east) and hoping to start asylum claims in Winnipeg (110 paved km north).

Before this, a Winnipeg social agency’s staff made the journey south whenever border agents called, and hurriedly cobbled together any available housing options, from a Salvation Army shelter to an agency worker’s couch.

With the triage centre in this village, authorities have brought system and structure to this chaotic asylum-seeker influx. So have regular nightly RCMP patrols in Emerson, instituted to ensure the bedraggled travellers don’t wander into town before somebody detains them and brings them to the customs office at the Emerson border post, where a trailer now serves as a waiting and processing area.

The one-storey brick lodge in Gretna sleeps up to 60, but this weekend it’s only housing a handful of asylum seekers. When the government announced plans for the shelter abruptly in late April, an explanatory community meeting got testy. Jeff Dyck, who runs the village’s lone diner and lives a block away from the migrants’ shelter, initially worried this was being “rammed down our throat.” Weeks later, he says fears have abated. “Other than seeing them walking down the street and waving at us, we wouldn’t know they’re there.”

After a few questions from reporters, Hassan wearily snuffs out his unfinished cigarette with his heel and retreats inside his temporary lodgings. He’ll stay the weekend in Gretna. He’ll tell his full story later, in Winnipeg, to a refugee adjudicator.


The Mae Trio, a young Australian folk group, is playing a room of 20 people and two countries. The Haskell Opera House stage and front rows sit in this Quebec border town, but 40 per cent of the seats are in U.S. territory, in Derby Line, Vt.

Hal Newman nicknames his concert space the “Impossible Room.” Where else in the world will somebody find a venue bifurcated by an international boundary? Here, the border consists not of a fence or checkpoint, but a long piece of tape on the floor.

But what makes the place truly “impossible” is who might be in the audience. Patrons from both sides of the border are permitted inside without crossing customs. On any given night, it’s conceivable a family separated by the border—perhaps one member living in America, undocumented—can reunite for a show.

Contrary to the name, there is no opera. Newman recently brought back live music, using his indie-music connections and online ads to draw crowds.

Meanwhile, on the main floor below, the Haskell Free Library would prefer less international buzz.

The US-Canada border is marked on the floor of the Haskell Library and Opera house, Stanstead, Quebec.

The US-Canada border is marked on the floor of the Haskell Library and Opera house, Stanstead, Que. Roger Lemoyne

“At this particular point in time and history, we feel a bit vulnerable about our situation,” library director Nancy Rumery says. “We’re trying to keep our head down and not draw attention to ourselves.”

That’s not easy. The lone entrance is on American soil. Canadians don’t need a passport, but they can’t step off the sidewalk on their way in. Refugee claimants have used the library’s unique location as a means to cross illegally because the border road outside has no fence, but rather a row of potted plants. In May, a Montrealer was extradited for smuggling guns through the library.

Lately, it feels like all it would take is one tweet from the border-wall-loving Donald Trump for the library to be shuttered—or at least changed.

Newman, whose Jewish grandparents immigrated at Halifax’s Pier 21, knows refugee hopefuls have also traversed empty farmland like that behind his home. “My wife and I had this discussion: what do we do if one of us goes out one night and we find a family in our chicken coop in the winter?” he says. “Our thought is we’d bring them inside and give them food.”

But the farther into Quebec you travel, the more abstract the border becomes to people—and attitudes toward refugees harden, he says. One doesn’t need to go far.

At a nearby campground, Stanstead Mayor Philippe Dutil is calling Friday-night bingo. “What people are telling me is that now with a bigger presence of the RCMP, they feel safer,” he says. “Some people don’t even lock their door anymore.” Dutil isn’t all that bothered by border-jumpers. The issue has taken a grand total of zero minutes of town council’s time.

Others, however, have worries beyond security. “Work is hard to find as is and then you have all these refugees come over and take all our work,” says Patricia, a bingo player and gas station manager (she asked that her last name not be used).

At the Haskell, the musicians finish playing around 9 p.m. Band member Elsie Rigby remarks on the “immigration crap” going on at home—a reference to Australia’s own crackdown on refugee claimants.

Her sister Maggie chimes in: “Looking at that line on the floor there makes you realize how meaningless and arbitrary borders are.”


Closed gate at decommissioned border crossing in Emerson, Man.

Signs at the old border crossing facility in Emerson, Manitoba, as seen from Noyes, Minnesota, where border jumpers frequently cross over from the United States, Friday, June 16, 2017. Trevor Hagan

Asylum seekers have walked into this community for years, but 106 new arrivals used to be the rough annual total. This year, that was how many the RCMP intercepted in May, and that was the lowest monthly count since January.

“It makes our border look like a joke,” says Ron Opocensky. He and a friend, Jessie Chubaty, started locking their doors recently. They feel bad for people coming into Canada with nothing but a backpack, but they worry those newcomers are abusing the system, or at least putting a strain on it.

All Canadians were immigrants at some point, they say, but they came through proper channels. “What would happen to us normal white folk if we tried walking across the border?” Chubaty asks. (Answer: if someone of any race crosses with an asylum claim, they get to test their claim in Canada’s refugee system.)

Fundraiser in Ridgeville, Man.

A fundraiser in Ridgeville, Manitoba, close to Emerson, Friday, June 16, 2017. Trevor Hagan

It’s not that Emerson residents are unkind; they take care of their own. Opocensky, Chubaty, a convoy of ATV riders and dozens more are crowded on this night into the Ridgeville Co-op Community Club, a nearby bar, for a fundraiser for a local business owner whose granddaughter had heart complications at birth, requiring multiple operations. The family could use some money to cover her medication costs.

Greg Janzen, the reeve of Emerson-Franklin, brought $152 worth of shrimp to the steak dinner. He worries migrants with criminal records will evade the RCMP, which might explain his recent purchase of motion-activated night cameras, which he affixed to trees near popular border-crossing points in Emerson. If a sensor is tripped, he gets a picture sent to his phone instantly. After several weeks, he now has plenty of photos of deer and an unmarked RCMP minivan on its nightly patrols—but nary a refugee claimant.

Janzen is wary of newcomers, but his solution is the same as that of immigration-reform advocates: end the Safe Third Country Agreement. What good is barring asylum claims at U.S.-Canada border stations when it serves only to force migrants to sneak through farm fields into town? “If we’re going to keep letting them in, let them come in at the port of entry,” Janzen says. Opocensky agrees, albeit with a note of cynicism: “If they’re really coming here to find a home and get safety, yeah.”


Jenny Vásquez just after arriving at the border crossing in Fort Erie, Ont.

Jenny Vásquez moments after arriving in Canada at the Fort Erie border, Friday, June 16, 2017. Stephanie Foden

Jenny Vásquez and her family emerge from the immigration-processing centre near the Canadian feet of the Peace Bridge. They’ve been at the centre since 7:30 a.m.; her sons, eight and 10, entertained themselves on Jenny’s phone by building a Minecraft house with a waterslide.

An undocumented migrant in New Jersey, Vásquez realized she needed to flee the U.S. during an information session at her children’s school in February, when she was encouraged to fill out a form stating who should take custody of her two sons if she were deported. Her oldest son, Pablo, known as “Pablito,” soon afterward reported threats from a classmate, who warned, “You better be careful. My mom’s a police officer, and she’s going to come and get your mom.”

After escaping violence in El Salvador and Mexico, Jenny and her husband, Pablo, should have by law claimed refugee status in America, which is considered a safe country under the much-maligned agreement. But Jenny has an aunt in Ontario, which allows her to enter and apply for asylum not by hopping the border and bypassing the agreement like the migrants in Emerson, but by using its exemption for applicants with “anchor families” in Canada. This is the route most asylum seekers migrating from the U.S. to Canada follow. Some 95 per cent arriving in Fort Erie from Buffalo are using family ties to escape Trump’s America.

“We had hope with Obama,” says Jenny, but “it’s getting worse.” The family didn’t claim refugee status in America because they expected to be denied.

As a child in El Salvador’s civil war, she spent five days squished with 15 relatives in a bedroom of her grandmother’s house, the mattress braced against the walls as protection from bullets. At age 23, Jenny paid a human trafficker to get her to America.

She trekked for three days with strangers through the Arizona desert, avoiding sun and scorpions by sleeping in caves by day and walking by night. She eventually reached Pennsylvania and a meal of cooked wiener rolls at a Jewish summer camp, where she met Pablo, who was painting cabins. The couple had two sons and built a life in New Jersey.

On this Friday night in June, just after sunset, Jenny’s cousins load that life into a minivan. Vehicles are still pulling into bays to be searched—three guards to inspect a four-door car, in some cases, turning road trips into guilt trips. Rolling away from this border, the Vásquez van heads to London, Ont., where they hope their trip will end.


In the mosquito-clouded darkness of a southern Manitoba night, train tracks that curl into Emerson from Kittson County, Minn., typically get busier—but not with trains. It’s one of the most popular routes for border-jumpers, because no pathway other than the muddy banks of the Red River so clearly leads to Canada. A patrolling RCMP driver approaches the tracks, in case anybody’s looking to claim asylum and get detained. Blame it, perhaps, on the driving rain a few hours earlier: nobody’s taking the rail route north tonight.

The U.S. border patrol calls them the northbounders. They’ll stumble in the dark for kilometres through farmland, woods and chest-high grass, or along the Red River. If American patrollers find northbounders and can safely stop them, they’ll check their legal status in the U.S. Illegal residents evading detention or deportation orders get arrested—something agent in charge Eric Kuhn says happens more often now, in about five to 10 per cent of cases, thanks to the new “detention priorities” of the Trump administration. But sneaking out of the U.S. is no crime. So it’s not worth giving chase.

There’s a shorter, easier route for asylum seekers bound for Emerson: the long-shuttered border post at Noyes, Minn. Migrants can have a taxi drop them off, duck under part of an elbow-high steel gate and it’s welcome to Manitoba. Kuhn says his patrollers have found a few abandoned cars nearby, but for reasons that mystify authorities, cabbies from Grand Forks, N.D., prefer to drop off northbound passengers several kilometres from Canada and make them walk the rest of the way in darkness. In that darkness this spring, Mavis Otuteye, a Ghanaian national who wanted to visit her newborn Canadian granddaughter, fell en route and was later found dead of probable hypothermia about a kilometre from the border. With that infant as an anchor relative, she likely could have crossed legally to claim asylum in Fort Erie.


Border marker in the yard of the Smuggler’s Inn Bed and Breakfast

A sign outside Smuggler’s Inn Bed & Breakfast, seen from the Canadian side of the border in Surrey, B.C., on Saturday, June 17, 2017. The boulders mark the border between Canada and the United States. Taehoon Kim

In the ditches and forests along Zero Avenue, veined with footpaths and trails, it’s easy to spot a telltale patch of flattened grass where jumpers recently crossed, or the empty water bottle they dropped as they ran.

Somebody has just tripped a border sensor, and within three minutes the person is cornered on all sides by three RCMP SUVs with lights flashing. All they find is a Maclean’s photographer getting a night shot of a stately Victorian house across the street in Blaine, Wash. “How about that response time, eh?” one officer asks.

Zero Avenue bisects Canada and the United States for 30 km from the Peace Arch and B.C.’s Pacific flats to the farmland of Abbottsford: kilometre after kilometre of fields and forests, an untended border less than an hour’s drive from Vancouver.

In stretches, the road is so desolate and spooky it has become a favourite set for B.C.’s film industry. A ribbon-thin strip of gravel shoulder acts as the border. The occasional bright white security camera mounted on a swivel atop a five-metre pole is the only defence against border-hoppers: the RCMP intercepted 60 asylum claimants in May in British Columbia, but believes it catches a small fraction of those crossing illegally.

More than a few would-be refugees have spent the night at Smuggler’s Inn, the stately Victorian on the U.S. side. The bed and breakfast’s ledger lists guest nationalities: Afghanistan, Syria, Tunisia, Costa Rica, Yemen—98 countries in all. Bob Boule, the jovial proprietor, likes to joke that many of his guests never turn up for breakfast.


Police officer talking to a group of migrants

A group of seven people from Nigeria are informed by an RCMP officer of their rights and the law that they are breaking by crossing illegally from the U.S.A. into Canada at Roxham Rd., Que. Roger LeMoyne

RCMP officers have been waiting all night at the foot of a ditch on Roxham Road. Of the 3,461 border-jumping refugee claimants the RCMP intercepted between January and May, three-quarters crossed into this province. The flow is so steady along this remote, tree-lined residential road—once seamlessly connected to the U.S. but now separated by a ditch filled with warning signs not to cross—that Mounties now wait here 24/7.

Police never know when anyone will arrive, though the bus schedule from nearby Plattsburgh, N.Y., makes them expect early-morning migrants. Today, a regular shows up—François Doré, a Canadian on his regular morning walk.

The fact that migrants cross here “every month, every week and now every day” doesn’t bother Doré, a retired Quebec police officer who’s lived on Roxham for 10 years. Suggest these people are a burden on taxpayers and he’ll bring up a lawyer from Yemen who recently returned to Roxham Road to see where his Canadian life started two years ago. “I asked him if he made the right decision,” Doré recalls. “His eyes welled up with tears. He said it was the only decision.”

Those living closest to the most illegally traversed road in Canada seem the least bothered by it. Susan Heller’s home, three houses away from the border ditch, has a sign on the fence that reads, in French, “Immigrants welcome.” “Canada, where there is lots of space and which has a reputation for being kind to people, should be willing to accept as many as need to come,” she says.

Not as accepting, however, were the men in leather jackets who stood next to RCMP officers to “observe” the border happenings a few weeks earlier. “They looked menacing,” she says, referring to Storm Alliance, founded by Dave Tregget, a former national executive with the anti-immigrant street patrollers known as Soldiers of Odin.

His new “alliance” doesn’t intend to impede border police or intimidate those coming across, Tregget says. He’s adamant his group isn’t against immigration. Yet he bemoans the government spending money “welcoming people who don’t speak English or French and will be on welfare for I don’t know how long.” And, he says, some kinds of newcomers don’t integrate as well. “[Now] it’s only Muslims coming over.”

While such racially charged rhetoric is uncommon in this area, concern about border-hopping isn’t. Later in the day, Bob Brown sips red wine at the Royal Canadian Legion in nearby Hemmingford. “I’m in favour of [refugees] doing it the legal way,” he says. “I understand there are women and children trying to get a better life. Not to take a hard line, but we have rules and regulations that should be followed.”


Border crossing at Blaine, Wash.

The Peace Arch Border Crossing is visible from Blaine, Wash., on Friday, June 16, 2017. A large number of asylum seekers simply walk through the border at the crossing and through neighbourhoods just east of the crossing. Taehoon Kim

Did all of last night’s guests at the Smuggler’s Inn stay on for an American breakfast? Boule plays coy.

A red-cheeked man with a big belly who is never without his navy fisherman’s cap, Boule is sympathetic to the jumpers’ plight. “Breaking up families is not what we are about in the United States. In our country right now, our president forgets where his wife came from. If the laws were tweaked and she had to be sent back to her own country, he would do everything in his power to allow her to stay,” he says. (First lady Melania Trump hails from Slovenia.)

Bob Boule, owner of Smuggler's Inn Bed and Breakfast in Blaine, Wash.

Bob Boule, owner of Smuggler's Inn Bed & Breakfast in Blaine, Wash., on Saturday, June 17, 2017. Taehoon Kim

Recently, Boule hosted a Palestinian family with eight children under the age of 11. They left the Palestinian territories by car then flew Jerusalem-Dubai-Seattle before taking an Uber to Smuggler’s Inn, a 38-hour trip. “It’s not normal for an adult to be coherent after such a journey. And the kids’ world is upside-down: they haven’t been able to bring any of their toys, they’re suddenly eating totally different foods, Mom and Dad are stressed, anxious, crying.”

He put the kids at ease the way he always does: his cook prepared a familiar meal, then he let them pick one Beanie Baby out of an ornate glass bowl. “They can keep it and sleep with it. It makes them feel safe,” he says.

To Boule, the thank-you notes he receives make it all worthwhile. He’s got hundreds of them, and hangs up just enough to “keep us smiling.”

Directly across the street from the Smuggler’s Inn and Boule, who runs pot tours on the side, you will find Glynn Jones. The Canadian construction worker despises Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and can scarcely get through a sentence without devolving into conspiracy theory.

Jones phones the RCMP every time he sees someone gumbooting their way into Canada from Boule’s inn, which is recently a more regular occurrence. He routinely sees low-flying choppers buzzing his trees trying to “flush them out.” It goes the other way, too: cars sometimes stop in front of his house to unload a backpack-wearing border-hopper who strolls across the street and into the U.S. He’s had armed officers search his house, hot on the heels of a couple of Mexican migrants.

“This is why people elected Donald Trump,” he says, leaning on his balcony and sucking on a Bud Light. “It has to stop. Where does Trudeau think he is right in saying that this is good for our country? I haven’t talked to one person that is for this. The American people don’t think it’s good for their country. But he’s saying, ‘Just bring them in.’ The Canadian people are not happy. I’m certainly not.”

But Boule, across the street, knows the people making this transition. His guests are doctors, businesspeople, scientists. Some have been travelling for years. There is only one constant he has observed: “They are looking to the future—not today.”


A man from Cameroon being arrested moments after he crossed from the U.S. to Roxham Rd. Que.

A man from Cameroon being arrested moments after he crossed from the U.S. to Roxham Rd. Que. Roger Lemoyne

The man walking toward the border seems anxious, despite being told exactly what would happen. He crosses into Canada at Roxham Road as an RCMP officer yells that he cannot. He says he is from Cameroon and states his first name, Gustav. The officer puts him in handcuffs and then in the squad car to begin the paperwork.

Most arrests on Roxham Road are this civil. Both migrant and Mountie know the drill. But when two Nigerians arrive an hour later, it appears one woman did not get the script in advance. As her male travel companion is quietly handcuffed without making a fuss, she puts up a fight.

“You can’t put handcuffs on me. I’m a refugee . . . You’re going to pay for this . . . I’m fainting . . . I have come for cover . . . I have a fracture,” she screams. The officer brings her gently to the ground. When the cuffs are on, she begins to bawl. Another officer approaches her and says, gently: “It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re in Canada now. But we still have to arrest you.”

The next arrest—a Yemeni man who shows up at 5:20 p.m.—goes by the book. When told he’ll be arrested if he crosses, he replies, “Okay, no problem.” He continues into Canada, offering up his wrists for the handcuffs. When a photographer approaches, he smiles.

He’s got $170 in his wallet, a cellphone and a small backpack. Police open up the bag, which contains clothes and a towel. It’s all he has to start his new life.


 Jenny Vásquez, Jorge Cisco, Mauricio Espinosa, Marina de Cisco and Pablo Vásquez sit down to eat together outside the house in London, Ontario.

Jenny Vásquez, Jorge Cisco, Mauricio Espinosa, Marina de Cisco and Pablo Vásquez sit down to eat together outside the house in London, Ontario. Stephanie Foden

Jenny Vásquez’s sons get the run of their cousin’s basement: Pablito and Jonctin let their hosts’ pet hamsters loose. Upstairs, the women cook patties with pork, beans and cheese, served with homemade salsa. “The cheese is from Costco, so it’s partly Canadian,” says Sheiby Cisco, Jenny’s first cousin.

Jenny’s family has survived mostly on pasta for nearly three weeks, staying at two shelters in Buffalo then driving by taxi to the border at Fort Erie, where they had an appointment with a not-for-profit organization attached to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) building. The Fort Erie Multicultural Centre is the only organization in Canada with such a direct partnership with the CBSA, where border guards trust them to host migrants while they’re being processed. The day of Vásquez’s arrival, staff from the centre were meeting with officials in Emerson to try to encourage their adoption of the model.

Christian Espinosa, Yoltzin Vásquez and Pablo Vásquez play video games in their cousin’s basement in London, Ontario.

Christian Espinosa, Yoltzin Vásquez and Pablo Vásquez play video games in their cousin’s basement in London, Ontario. Stephanie Foden

Jenny considers her cousins to be siblings. Although an anchor family member can be an aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, grandparent, grandchild, sibling or parent, the exemption doesn’t include first cousins, which seems unfairly arbitrary to many refugees. Cousinhood may be an easier relationship to fake—“We understand that,” says Sheiby, “but when it’s true, it’s like your hands are tied.”

Fortunately, Jenny’s aunt moved to Canada five years ago and serves as the anchor relative. What do the boys hope to do in Canada? “Math,” says Pablito. “No, nature stuff,” by which he means camping.

Jenny hopes to become a hairdresser in London, and Pablo wants to work in construction. Their stay wasn’t yet confirmed, as they had to return to the processing centre the following Tuesday, with refugee hearings to follow. But for the weekend, the boys found bliss—their two bellies finally full and their cousin’s rodents running free.


Robin Neustaeter outside a converted seniors’ centre that now houses border jumpers in Gretna, Man.

Robin Neustaeter speaking outside the former senior centre that now houses border jumpers in Gretna, Manitoba, Saturday, June 17, 2017. Trevor Hagan

The foosball table is hopping, its players spinning and occasionally connecting with the ball, in the common room of the refugee claimants’ welcome centre. Robin Neustaeter, a long-time Gretna resident, is playing with her eight-year-old daughter and a migrant girl who’s been there all weekend.

Like others in the 550-person village, Neustaeter was surprised when the Manitoba government inserted the former seniors’ home into the asylum process. It’s a predominantly Mennonite town, and Neustaeter knows her own people’s experience of immigration and discrimination. “When the Mennonites first came in the late 1870s or 1880s, we weren’t looked upon well either,” she says.

Neustaeter helped lead a furniture, toy and hygiene supplies drive so that when new migrants arrive at the centre after their long journeys, they can have a shower and a comfortable sleep, and just relax. There are even new wooden garden boxes behind the facility to grow onions, cucumbers, carrots and other vegetables for the small kitchen.

“This is their first introduction to Canada, to Manitoba,” she says. “For the few days they’re here, if we can give them a smile and a hello, then we’ve done our job.”

A white minivan arrives at the centre’s entrance. Out step two provincial employees and a man with mud-caked yellow pants. More than six hours have lapsed since the man left the back of a pickup truck for customs processing and security. His face droops with exhaustion; plastic bags cover his once-bare feet.


Christian Espinosa, Yoltzin Vásquez and Pablo Vásquez play video games in their cousin’s basement in London, Ontario.

A pregnant woman and her child and a woman traveling alone from Nigeria are placed in a police vehicle after crossing illegally from the U.S.A. into Canada at Roxham Rd., Que. Roger LeMoyne

The sun is starting to set on Roxham Road when two taxis show up and six people climb out: four adults and two children. They repeat lines over and over: “Please help us. Our lives are in danger. Please help us. Our lives are in danger. We are running for our life.”

Their new life in Canada starts with an illegal act, but one for which international refugee law states asylum seekers cannot be punished. The RCMP officers say they are under arrest and ask if they understand. They’ve only been here a few seconds, but one woman offers the definitively Canadian reply: “Yes, we understand. We’re very sorry.”

They are from Nigeria. Some left Africa a month ago, they explain. Others left four days ago. Two of the women are pregnant. There is a lone man wearing a North Carolina Michael Jordan jersey under his jacket. The children are silent.

Back in their native land, locals tried to circumcise their daughters, both the pregnant women say. “Now my family are trying to run for our life—and my unborn child,” one of them adds.

Inside the police car, the women begin to weep. It’s impossible to know right now where their journey ends, but it seems likely that in a few months’ time, they’ll give birth to brand-new Canadian citizens.