Heading North to Another World

A motorcycle gang whizzes by heading for Canada, a sleepy restaurants sits on the edge of town, a small river perfect for wading sits a minute walk north. But you can’t simply just wade in that river, it divides the nations of Canada and the USA.

Bikers in Derby Line, Vermont. Photo by Dodge Landesman

The crisis at the border has become the hot button issue in politics today. However, at the other border, the US-Canadian one in Derby Line, Vermont, the scene is a most tranquil one. A potted plant separates the two nations, as the town sits right along the border, with Main street going down two nations.

Potted plants separate the US and Canada. Photo by Dodge Landesman

Few problems are recorded here, and the whole process seems to be quite different, and even the handling of those who don’t cross legally. It makes one wonder if there is a violation of protocol on the other side of the border, as things definitely seem to be different here. On a sunny weekday things are sleepy in this town of 700 people (Stanstead, Quebec, across the border has almost 3,000 people). One restaurant sits on the American side, two sit on the Canadian side. Having visited both areas, while two nations separate the community, the atmosphere is not different at all. Quebecers on the Canadian side speak English, the signs are in English, aside for the streets which are in French. There is no French restaurant to speak of, just a pizza place that stays open during daylight hours.

Jane Leandre, owner and the singular employee at Jane’s Cafe commutes everyday from the Canadian side to the American one. It is a small, simple restaurant, not open Mondays and Tuesdays, but usually it is quite full before it closes by 2pm. Five items donn the menu, with red and brown simple counters and folding chairs for patrons. She has lived in the area for over twenty years, so she has seen the process change. “It’s very relaxed here, very few problems. And there’s been no difference with Trump, the real difference was after 9/11. People used to be able to walk in and out freely here, no passport necessary. The hockey teams used to play each other a few times a month. But after 9/11, it would take them over two hours for all them to be processed, on either side of the border. Once a year they’ll still play, but we used to be a lot more cohesive. We still have a community here, but I feel like we’re a little more divided.”
Peter Coppell was also sitting in the restaurant at the time. He goes multiple times a week, and is a retired US customs agents. He has seen it all, having been an agent at the US-Mexico border for five years, before requesting to be transferred to a more relaxed scene. “I got the most relaxed one possible,” he says with a sly smile. Coppell notes that just because the everyday atmosphere is calm, doesn’t mean there weren’t issues to handle at this specific border crossing. Indeed, CBS Local Vermont Northeast Kingdom noted, released some statistics about the Derby Line, VT/Stanstead, Quebec border crossing noting, “So far this fiscal year, there have been at least 267 apprehensions along Canada’s border with Vermont alone, compared with 132 all of last year, according to statistics compiled by federal prosecutors in Vermont.”

Customs Agent Peter Coppell Shares His Perspective. photo by Dodge Landesman

“Things changed since 2016, when Canada waved the visa requirement to Mexicans to strengthen their ties. A lot easier for Mexican citizens to fly over to Montreal, for example, and walk down through this border. We have the plants and of course two stations, but other than that in this town, you can hop across the small stream late and night and probably go undetected. Very few have been successful however, about a few times a year I’ve had to chase some people, one I chased an hour through the woods. Usually though, they can sneak successfully if they’re quiet and smart. But we almost always got them. The cab companies are required to report if things seem suspicious, the hotels in the area too, and it’s a close knit community so they work with border patrol. I think in the future the problem over here will get bigger, the visa change happened only a handful of years ago. I have apprehended smugglers associated with the Sinaloa cartel here, only twice, but they exist, and they are building a network here. They get $4,000 per person. I think a lot more subtle crossings have happened that we don’t know about. They’re smarter, they get out of town quick, they know how to cover their tracks, they’re professionals in a sense. As Trump secures the US border, more people are going to utilize this border, from Mexico, for the loop around. I guarantee it. I think I retired at the right time.”

Pat Hunt is the Vice President of Trustees of the Haskell Free Library. It was built around 200 years ago, with a wealthy landowner donating the money to build a library that sits between the two nations, as a symbol to promote Canada and US partnership. A big black line goes along the middle of the library, one side is Canada, the other is the USA. “Especially since security tightened, this place has been a god send to many people. The latin American migrants are always a topic here, they go through the US-Mexico border and yes, many go through the Canadian-US one. But here we have a lot of refugees from countries like Somalia, Haiti, coming through here. They don’t realize that the asylum process is not as simple as they think. But this serves as a meeting place. Many refugees I’ve met had the intent to meet their family in the USA, but can’t because the ceiling on refugees has been lowered. But in this library, residents of both nations can meet without a passport. The Canadians enter and exit through the Canadian door, the Americans do the same with theirs. I’ve seen so many emotional reunions, families can stay here for hours, as long as they want, and many people do. It is a quiet place, patrons of the library let them be. It’s a refuge here, and there is no other place like it.”

The big, black line separates the US and Canada at the Haskell Free Library. Photo by Dodge Landesman

Indeed, the refugee crisis plays an important role in border relations but on the US-Mexico border and the US-Canadian one. While migrants get most of the attention, refugees from Haiti, Somalia, and other countries dominated by violence make up a heavy number of technically illegal border crossings, and in the US-Canada one, their numbers are larger than that of the US-Mexico one.

Adam Salzman, who works at the South Royalton Legal Clinic in Vermont gave some insight. His organization helps all border crossers apprehended in the USA within the state of Vermont acquire free legal assistance. He touched upon the Stanstead-Derby Line crossing, “not a big one for residents”, but notes the Plattsburgh-Quebec, outside of his purview, gets a lot more traction. Many end up in Vermont when they are caught. “It’s hard for this border, because there isn’t any public transit around. You’d have to have a lot of extra cash. But Plattsburgh, NY is right by the border, Greyhound goes there, even Amtrak, so if you don’t have a car you can get there. Then its less than 20 minutes to Montreal. Lots of resources there. But Stanstead, Sherbrooke, Quebec, a sizable city of 100,000, is still 45 minutes away. And they don’t have help for refugees like Montreal does. They cross over illegally to the USA, and claim asylum in Canada. The problem is, ICE has been on the alert more. They catch these refugees here, even if it’s just passing through, they send them back. The whole process has changed for refugees on the US side, and in Canada this has become a hot button issue in their upcoming election.”

This is confirmed in the letter of the law. The American Immigration Council explains the US law about refugees, “Under U.S. law, a ‘refugee’ is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.” So, the US does have policies about accepting refugees and their willingness is written out. However, the customs of the US and Canada diverge shortly after that, “the President, in consultation with Congress, determines the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions each year.” The Canadian Prime Minister, however, has no such power, and their law about refugees, and the number that they ultimately accept, cannot be changed over time, or by a governmental power. The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada notes that, “The Refugee Protection Division (RPD) of the IRB hears and decides claims for refugee protection made in Canada. Convention refugees are people who have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Persons in need of protection must show that if they return to their country of nationality, they will face a danger of torture, a risk to their life or a risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.”

The US, for example, has a refugee number ceiling, while Canada doesn’t, although agents are still allowed to use discretion as noted. According the American Immigration Council, the US in 2016 admitted six short people of 85,000, while their ceiling was 85,000. That means that during Obama administration, only four slots in the ceiling were left unfilled. In 2017, only 53,716 were admitted, which is actually above the official ceiling, which had been changed by President Trump that year, being only 50,000. However, in 2018, the ceiling was yet again lowered to 45,000, with a scant 16,230 being admitted. That means more than 60% of the ceiling remained unfilled, pointing to a drastic change in refugee treatment and admittance. Canada, meanwhile, according to Canada.ca, the official Canadian government website, admitted 40,000 refugees that year. That number has been consistent throughout the decade, with 2018 being the first year Canada admitted more refugees than their American neighbors, even though the nation has 10% of the USA population.

The dramatic lowering of refugee cieling under the Obama and Trump administration, from the Migration Policy Institute

As of this moment, those who cross into Canada successfully are safe. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has expressed a willingness to accept any refugees who might show up, and agents very rarely turn people away on the Canadian side of the border. Americans at first glance, especially in comparison with President Trump, may feel Canada is a progressive bastion, but it doesn’t seem to actually be so. The Canadian election for Prime Minister is on October 21, and while election season hasn’t officially begun (it can only be a six week period), it has in all other respects. Parliament is done for the session, and the candidates are off and running. The government mirrors that of the UK, it’s a parliamentary system, so the candidates running against Trudeau are members of Parliament, as is Trudeau himself. There are three candidates the media gives a chance of actually winning, who are members of the three main parties in the nation. The challenger in the Conservative Party is 39 year old Andrew Scheer, a dynamic and popular member of Parliament. He has been neck in neck with Trudeau in the polls so far, usually coming within five points of him, or even less. Jagmeet Singh is running under the New Democratic Party banner, the even more progressive alternative to Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party. Singh was born to immigrant parents from India, and talks about opportunities for new immigrants coming to Canada, as well as refugees.

The three most major candidates, from left to right, Jagmeet Singh, Andrew Scheer and incumbent Justin Trudeau. From the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

“The one to watch, however, is Maxime Bernier. There is a conservative movement in Canada. A real one. Right now he’s at 10%, low, but he just created a brand new party, he started at 0, I think slowly more people disaffected from the Conservative Party may move his way. There’s an awakening here in Canada just like there was with Trump in 2016.” Richard Huang is a member of the Conservative Party in Ontario and used to be an activist for the party, volunteering and even managing various campaigns in his spare time. He is also a doctor. Lately, however, he has become disaffected with his party and has ceased his activism. An enthusiastic Trump supporter, Huang feels like he felt “politically homeless” for some time in Canada, “until Doug Ford, and now Maxime came along”. Maxime Bernier is running for Prime Minister under a new party, the People’s Party of Canada, that claims to be the more conservative alternative to the mainstream Conservative Party. He challenged Andrew Scheer, the current Conservative nominee, for the leadership but lost in a close race.
The Daily Globe and Mail notes the extremism of Bernier’s platform, which seems to slowly be getting traction. Bernier “questioned the science of climate change, pilloried the United Nations and insisted immigrants to Canada must embrace ‘Western civilization values.’”. Bernier has called for a ceiling matching Trump’s in the USA for refugees, and has said he will work more closely with him than the current PM. The paper also notes that Bernier is not pulling any punches with his language. “He tweeted a video of crowds in Pakistan protesting the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian who had been convicted of blasphemy. ‘Radical multiculturalism is the misguided belief that all values and cultures can coexist in one society,’ he tweeted. ‘They cannot. We must protect our society against this kind of barbarism.’”

“Things are getting worse with the Conservative party, yet somehow their radicalism is not enough. The fact that 10% of voters are planning on voting for Bernier is alarming. And it’s only going up. It’s an interesting contrast in Canada. We have the incumbent who has disappointed so many progressives. For his support of the pipeline, his various governmental scandals. But then the population here seems to be evolving to the right of Trudeau.” says Jared Walker, who is does communications for the NDP. “Singh is gaining traction too however, the picture and diversion is stunning. We have Mr. Singh whose parents immigrated from India, he is Sikh, wears a turban, he visually represents the diverse multiculturalism that Canada is proud of, and his story and politics do too.”

Maxime Bernier is running under the banner “strong and free”, which some say is a racist dog whistle against immigrants. Photo from the Global News

While Singh, being the first South Asian major nominee in North American history does reflect the accepting attitude of Canada, it is clear to see that their collective attitude is slowly becoming fractured and is changing.

The changing tide started with the Premiership election for Ontario. Being the premier of a province is essentially akin to being the governor of a state. Doug Ford, the brother of controversial Toronto mayor Rob Ford (who was caught smoking crack on video, resigned, and later passed on), won the election, with his main catchphrase being “we need to take care of our own”, in response the wave of refugees coming into the nation. Voters agreed with his message, with Ford beating the incumbent premier by 7%. She came in third place, with the NDP candidate coming in second. “That race shows a divide too. Luckily the liberals get even more radical, now the NDP is the big game in town and it’s taking away votes from the Liberal Party. Canada is at the same time becoming more liberal and more progressive. We are mirroring the USA, we are more divided. And that’s why our movement will win, sooner or later,” Huang says with a satisfied chuckle. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation notes that the Immigration and Refugee Board, which gives legal assistance to refugees, has been cut by 30% under Ford’s rule.
Scheer has struck a somewhat more moderate tone, although it is clear to see he is generally with Ford and Bernier on immigration, even if his language is more careful and respectful. CBC quoted Scheer saying, “Among the people I hear from most often on this point are new Canadians themselves, people who have played by the rules and arrived in Canada fair and square. They are most offended at Trudeau’s status-quo, where some are able to jump queues, exploit loopholes and skip the line.”

Richard Huang has a point. National Post has a graph detailing the support of the new flux of Syrian refugees coming to Canada, with a breakdown by province. Not a single province even tops 40%

This election, and the result of it, will give a more whole understanding of North America’s immigration process in the near future. If Trudeau wins, which right now is just a few points ahead of Scheer, Canada will continue to be a refuge for refugees. Without a ceiling, with adequate legal assistance, without intense questioning from border patrol agents. But if Scheer wins or of course if Bernier wins, the process will forever be changed, with most refugees being unable to find an adequate home in the continent.

While the coverage of the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Chihahau is constant, it’s important to understand through a human perspective the border process to compare and contrast. The scene is a lot more fortified at this border of course, giant concrete walls rise from above the hallowed Rio Grande River. Barbed wire accompanies the fence, mutliple stations sit on both sides of the border, lines to get in and out, especially the American side, last forever, sometimes up to three hours. El Paso is a city of 650,000, Juarez is an ever expanding city of 1,300,000.

“The border here and crossing it is a strange animal. There’s not constant chaos like you would assume would be for many people. I work in El Paso and live in Juarez, I just show my passport, I go in and out, I use a third post that has less traffic than the two main bridges,” says Naiki Armendaz, who is a media figure in Juarez and hosts a youtube show about local politics and culture in the city. She has about 10,000 subscribers and is popular on the channel. Of course, understanding the reality of the every day, versus perhaps an overblown perspective from the news media is important.

Naiki elaborates about the refugees who come to Mexico, many of the Canadian, as well as the Juarez and Mexican perspective of the migrants in a video here

Having visited Juarez five times myself, it’s clear to see that the “danger” from migrants are largely fictionalized, and it is safe to be there at all hours, at least for most people. There is not constant violence on the street. In fact, last week, thousands of residents came out for the annual state fair, inhaling cotton candy, fried foods in addition to local Mexican delights, looked at the bunnies for sale and even saw noted DJ (who has a had number of songs in the Top 20 billboard charts) Steve Aioki perform.
“The idea that people are too scared to go out of their homes in fictional. The idea that these migrants and refugees are causing violence and littering is fictional. But that anti-immigrant sentiment, just like in the USA, is very strong. People here want to feel superior. Wealtheir and paler people have a higher place in society, and they hold on to their place with anger towards others.”

The Borderland Festival in notorious Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, attracts enthusiastic crowd photos by Dodge Landesman

Enrique Xavier Lopez works for Televisa, Mexico’s top news station, and is an anchor there. He notes that the culture towards immigrants in Mexico, just like in the USA and what is emerging in Canada, is being increasingly conservative and more divided that ever. In 2018, Mexico elected a new president after the very unpopular one, Pena Nieto, was term limited and served his term. Manuel Lopez Obrador, or popularly referred to as AMLO, won in a three way race with 53% of the vote. Second place finisher Ricardo Anaya received 22%. Many of Mexico’s more conservative voters voted for the other two candidates, and AMLO had promised full blown socialism and a stronger compassion towards immigrants than his predecessar. Like in the US with Trump, he maintains a cult like following, loyalty that can not be moved, while those in opposition fight him at every turn, with constant protests happening around the city.
“AMLO ran twice before, lost by a bit, people think he had the election stolen from him. Much of Mexico wanted a change.Of course, some didn’t. We are mad about his immigration views, he is letting so many of these migrants clog up this country”. Emir Ramos is a member of the Youth Congress at the Tecnologico do Monterrey, one of Mexico’s premier universities. They sort of run an incubator for budding politicians, many members in the mock youth congress are later tapped to run for actual congress. Ramos is a proud member of the National Action Party, or PAN, which has ruled Mexico, switching with the other party, PRI, for the last thirty years. AMLO created a new party, just like Bernier has in Canada, called Morena, which also swept a number of congresspeople and senators into victory.

Emir Ramos photo by Dodge Landesman

The new Mexican president has vowed to invest in Central American nations to make them safer, while also giving migrant workers from those nations a work permit and a job. He has worked with President Trump to implement the “remain in Mexico policy”, where those applying for asylum in the US must remain in Mexico while their case is being processed. There is constant opposition to AMLO and those policies towards migrants.

“It’s being fueled by people’s hearts and fake news,” says Armendaz, and indeed, a popular article being shared around Facebook is that a group of migrants kidnapped and killed an innocent young girl. It was from a website that looked professional but had no actual journalistic credentials. The story has not appeared in a single valid newssource, but Armendaz says the article has been shared by a large percentage of her friends. “The US has fake news. We have fake news. And this fake news creates this unfounded hatred of immigrants, in both countries. But that hatred has always been there. They were just looking for an outside source for it to be validated”.

Naiki Armendaz, photo by Dodge Landesman

Ramos disagrees. “Everyone frames this debate as those who are racist and those who are not. That is simply untrue. The effects of immigration are economic, are about security. Race and money has little to do with it. There are so many problems in Mexico. We have a solid middle class but so many are unemployed. And now AMLO is letting these migrants cut the line, he has jobs reserved for them, even though there are people here who need them first. They don’t contribute to our economy, they suck resources, they make it worse. I have a respect for Trump and I wish our president would act like him and send these people back to their countries.”

It’s clear to see that as a continent we are far more cohesive and similar than we think, that the feelings of superiority coupled with legitimate economic concern seem to permeate between all three nations. It’s a rarity that all three nations have elections back to back, US in 2020, Canada in 2019, Mexico in 2018, and its possible that by 2021, North America will have three completely different leaders than it had in 2018.

The tide towards radicalism and protectionism is strong, with Mexico the migrants are the target, with the United States it is the migrants in the south and refugees heading to the north, and in Canada a sentiment against the refugees alone is slowly growing across the nation. Perhaps the three nations could work together and evenly split these migrants and refugees, perhaps the US and Canada could invest in Mexico’s economy so they have the means to take care of migrants and split some with the other countries. Interestingly enough, while Canada has been accepting refugees, CBC asked Trudeau if he would be willing to accept members coming off the of migrant caravan. He evaded the questions. Perhaps one day we will be a cohesive and open continent, but that is most likely wishful thinking.

About the Author
Dodge Landesman is finishing his graduate degree at Emerson College. Before that he was involved in local New York City politics and even ran for local office, losing by 5%. He is currently interning at KVIA, the ABC affiliate in El Paso