Amy Bracken | Longreads | August 2018 | 27 minutes (6,729 words)
Samuel* bears the scars — above his mouth, on the top of his head, on both arms, on one leg — six bullet wounds in all. They’ll be considered as evidence when he goes before a Canadian immigration judge and he’ll have to tell the story that still makes his voice shake, about how gunmen attacked him at a Port-au-Prince intersection in 2013 and left him for dead. As a young police officer, he had witnessed men transporting weapons and drugs hidden in a truckload of plantains. Two of Samuel’s colleagues who were also present at the time have since been killed, he says, and when Samuel was shot at again in 2015 while taking his children to school, he knew he “had to leave Haiti.”
Thus begins the story of how Samuel, his wife, Darline, and their 1-year-old boy found themselves in a basement apartment on a chilly fall day in a quiet neighborhood of Montréal. They are part of a massive influx of asylum-seekers — mostly Haitian — who fled the United States for Canada last summer. They came at the peak of that influx, in early August 2017, when every day more than 200 people took a bus to upstate New York, then a taxi to the border, where a country road ends in grass and a well-worn dirt path. They breached the invisible boundary and turned themselves in to a Canadian Mountie, setting in motion the long process of trying to start a new life in a new country.
The urge for so many to leave the United States began to build with the election of Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Then, in spring 2017, John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, announced that Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians would expire in January 2018. TPS had been granted to some 50,000 Haitians living in the United States, protecting them from deportation, after a massive earthquake struck their country in 2010. Although Secretary Kelly said that renewal of TPS was possible, he suggested it was unlikely, and he urged recipients “to use the time before January 22, 2018, to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States.” (In November, the Trump Administration announced that TPS for Haitians would instead end in July 2019.)
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Canada became the destination for TPS recipients and many others when, in June, social media messages encouraging Haitians to apply for residency here, some even falsely claiming that the Canadian government would cover all fees, went viral. The messages spread feverishly among Haitians across in the United States and beyond.
The number of asylum claims at the Québec border had climbed since the start of 2017, but then it shot from 975 in June to 2,775 in July, and more than doubled again to 5,650 in August. Most of those claimants were Haitian.
A so-called “safe third country” agreement between the United States and Canada, in place since 2004, means that anyone presenting himself at a U.S. border station crossing to seek asylum in Canada must be turned back — with few exceptions made for some, like those with close family ties in Canada. The rule does not apply to those who cross between official ports of entry, have themselves arrested, then apply for asylum in Canada. With much of the U.S.-Canada border dominated by lakes, rivers, and remote fields, and with much of the U.S. Haitian population based on the eastern seaboard, the accessibility of the New York–Québec stretch made it the chosen entry point for the vast majority of migrants.
Samuel* bears the scars — above his mouth, on the top of his head, on both arms, on one leg — six bullet wounds in all.
As the number of irregular border-crossers mounted, public officials, service providers, and the media focused heavily on the misleading social media messages that encouraged them to come north, suggesting that deception was largely responsible for the influx and that those messages were setting migrants up for disappointment.
Indeed, most of the travelers I interviewed for this story said they had been inspired by WhatsApp and Facebook posts. One said that fellow travelers were startled by the sight of a police officer arresting people at the border, and most were unaware that in 2016, Haitian asylum claims were only accepted about 50 percent of the time.
However, newcomers’ assessments of whether or not coming to Canada was the right choice goes well beyond merely weighing the odds of getting residency or considering the fees. By other measures, there is enormous benefit in coming north.
For one, immediate deportation from Canada is unlikely for most. The fate of many who entered last summer will still be unresolved months or years from now, thanks in large part to a backlog. More than 50,000 asylum claims were made in Canada in 2017 — more than double the number in 2016. One result is that many saw their scheduled eligibility hearings pushed back indefinitely. A spokesperson for Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board said in February 2018 that projected hearing delays were about 20 months — despite efforts to step up capacity, such as the temporary designation of 17 Refugee Board members to focus specifically on processing the claims of recent border-crossers. The process will be longest for those whose claims are rejected, as they are entitled to appeal multiple times, dragging the process out for what might be several years.
Meanwhile, as they await a ruling on their fate, the life that Haitian asylum-seekers are able to live in Québec is often starkly different from what they had experienced in the States. Many quickly gained a foothold in Canadian society, are beginning to integrate, and are breathing easy in a way that they never could south of the border. But for some, the delays can be excruciating, for one reason above all: They prolong the time before they can send for family members they had to leave back home.
* * *
Samuel didn’t aspire to live in North America. He tried to make his way in Haiti as he was able. “I entered university but wasn’t able to finish,” he says. “I had to make a living, so I entered the police because it’s the one institution in Haiti that will hire anybody who is intelligent and physically fit.” It wasn’t a great job. He says his life was at risk on a number of occasions, yet he didn’t have a choice but to stick with it. Until he didn’t have a choice but to leave.
After Samuel was shot in Haiti in 2013, he spent two months in the hospital. Even today he has some pain in his right hand, and his fingers don’t work properly, jutting out awkwardly like sticks. And the violence did not affect him alone. He says it hurt his oldest child most.
“My daughter, who was four at the time, was shocked and traumatized,” he says. “When I returned from the hospital, she wouldn’t come near me, she was so afraid of me when she saw the scars.”
After Samuel was shot in Haiti in 2013, he spent two months in the hospital. Even today he has some pain in his right hand, and his fingers don’t work properly, jutting out awkwardly like sticks. And the violence did not affect him alone. He says it hurt his oldest child most.
When he was shot at the second time, the gunmen missed, but Samuel lost control of his motorcycle, throwing himself and his children to the pavement. Later, he says, “my daughter kept yelling, ‘Look, there’s the car that made us have an accident! Look at it, Daddy!’”
Like most Haitians crossing into Canada last summer, Samuel and Darline had entered the United States legally, flying in with five-year tourist visas. But they had been unable to get visas for their children, so they left them in Port-au-Prince with Darline’s mother. It was the hardest thing about being in Boston, but it was far from the only major challenge. Their visas did not allow them to work. Being broke, they couldn’t pay for an attorney to take Samuel’s asylum case — nor could they find one who would work pro bono. They couldn’t afford housing, so they stayed with a cousin until, Samuel says, “after six months, my wife and I needed to be independent, so we set out to find our own housing.” They wound up in a family homeless shelter an hour outside Boston, where they would spend the next year.
Samuel says messages kept circulating on Facebook about the promise of moving to Canada, but at first the couple ignored them, feeling that moving to a new country held too much uncertainty.
In July 2017, Samuel finally got his work permit, but Darline did not. And there was a drumbeat they could not ignore. “Trump was really applying pressure, sending messages that if you don’t have papers, you can’t stay in the country,” Samuel says. “I couldn’t return to Haiti. There was too much at stake. We decided it wasn’t worth [staying there]. We had to cross over to Canada.”
* * *
On an evening in August 2017, on a strip of highway in, Plattsburgh New York, near a Dollar Store, a Super 8 motel, and an A&W fast-food restaurant, a bus pulled into a Mobile station parking lot. Slowly, the front door opened, and a plastic toy truck tumbled down the stairs and hit the pavement. A family followed, lugging bags bursting at the seams. Then out came another, then another. About 20 Haitian men, women, and children descended from the bus and began looking around for taxis. Those days there were many more cabs than usual. After migration through the area exploded, new companies popped up, and old ones began working extra hours and longer routes. They also began charging astronomical prices. The New York Attorney General’s office fined a taxi company for charging migrants up to hundreds of dollars in excess of the going rate.
The cabs headed north on the highway, then along some country roads through vast stretches of cornfields punctuated by trailer homes, then down quiet, green, Roxham Road, until, at the end, beyond a thicket of vines and Queen Anne’s lace and signs that read Road Closed and No Pedestrians, a white canopy tent appeared. A Canadian police officer stood before it, poised like a nightclub bouncer, ready to check IDs at the door.
Matthew Turner had moved into a trailer home on Roxham Road in October 2016 and said that ever since then he’d been seeing taxis drive past his house to the dead end. Last summer it was a steady stream of cabs, often with names he’d never heard of. He said he found it annoying when cars unloaded in his driveway, especially if the travelers dropped trash. But he placed blame elsewhere. “All they’re trying to do is escape a pretty crappy system that we constructed because a blond wig got elected into office,” he said. “It’s sad, really. The whole Ellis Island thing just went out the window, and now they have to leave our country and seek it in a country that’s, honestly, at this point, better than ours.”
Turner, who lives with his wife and young son, works temp jobs, mostly loading and unloading for shipping companies. He said finding work is hard, but the best companies — in terms of safety, pay, and organization — are Canadian. He, too, imagines life to be better on the northern side of the border, in part because of universal health care.
As we spoke, a taxi marked WISH TRANSPORT passed, reached the end of the road, and deposited three people.
As we spoke, a taxi marked Wish Transport passed, reached the end of the road, and deposited three people. They formed a single-file line where the dirt path began. The middle-aged man at the back stood stiffly, clutching the handle of his zebra-print wheelie suitcase as he watched the others cross. I asked why he had come.
“I had problems in the U.S.,” he said.
“Is it because of TPS?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
In loud, slow English, the officer asked him, “Monsieur, do you speak English?”
“OK, this is the Canadian border right here. OK? Over there, you’re fine. As soon as you cross over here, you’ve entered Canada illegally, and you’ll be placed under arrest. OK?”
“Do you understand that?”
“OK, so you decide if you want to enter Canada. If you come in here, you’re under arrest, and then whatever the consequences are, you’ll have to deal with them.”
With that, the man soberly approached the policeman, luggage scraping along the dirt path. The officer told him he was under arrest and had a right to an attorney. He didn’t handcuff the man, though. Instead, he pointed to a sanitizer dispenser and asked him to wash his hands, before escorting him into the tent for processing.
Where Roxham Road picks up again, as Chemin Roxham, cornfields give way to orchards and houses obscured by high hedges. At the corner, there’s a turtle-crossing sign, and the air smells of apples. From the white tent, a bus took the new arrivals down narrow country roads and across a highway to a camp at the official border crossing a few minutes away. In August 2017, with the number of new arrivals exploding, the Canadian military set up rows of green canvas tents at the official crossing, as well as at a conference center in Cornwall, Ontario, with a combined capacity of close to 2,000 people. The Canadian Red Cross was at this camp, handing out blankets and hygiene kits, assigning beds, and performing medical checks.
* * *
In late September, perhaps unaware that the military had begun dismantling the camp at the border because of a decline in the number of border-crossers, the anti-immigrant, right-wing Canadian group Storm Alliance had chosen the spot for a rally. Several dozen men and women, looking like a motorcycle gang in black clothing and bandanas, marched toward the border, between the highway and the tent camp, some waving signs with crossed out pictures of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But they were stopped short by a boisterous crowd, a bit larger than their own, of young anarchists and members of Solidarité Sans Frontières, who chanted, “Haitians in, racists out!” and held signs with slogans like Make racists afraid again, and a banner with a sketch of President Trump’s crossed-out face, and the words Resist the Far Right — some of many indications that these activists also worry about a threat from south of the border.
In the province of Québec, public sentiment about the new arrivals has been mixed. At the height of last summer’s migrant influx, a poll by the media agency SOM-Cogeco Nouvelles found that 51 percent of Québec residents believed migrants should be prevented from crossing the border into Canada. It also found that 39 percent of the Québecois surveyed believed the influx would make the province less secure.
Still, generally what the newcomers experience upon arrival is a relatively warm welcome by the Canadian government and key organizations working alongside it, like the Canadian Red Cross. When Samuel and Darline spent a few days at the border at the height of the influx, the military camp hadn’t opened yet, and they say the government was clearly not ready for such a flood of people. For them, it meant standing in long lines for medical checks, photos, and fingerprinting. But they’re quick to add that the welcome was generally good. “They don’t push you around,” Samuel says. “They don’t handcuff you. They speak with you intelligently and in a way that you can understand. Everything went really well.”
Still, generally what the newcomers experience upon arrival is a relatively warm welcome by the Canadian government and key organizations working alongside it, like the Canadian Red Cross.
The language helps. Although many of the Canadian police who are greeting and arresting people at the unofficial border do not speak French, most officials in Québec after that point do. And for Haitians who do not speak French, at some points there are Haitian Creole interpreters.
Last August, after spending a few hours to a few days at the border, newcomers were bused to an immigrant shelter in Montréal. Normally there is only one such shelter, a YMCA. Over the summer, 12 more were added. Now there are just four.
Samuel and his family were dropped off at the Y, where they were connected with all the information they needed about government services, such as health care, and then they went to stay at Samuel’s brother’s place in Montréal. On August 14, 12 days after crossing the border, they began getting their monthly check from the Canadian government — about $1,122 Canadian ($883, in U.S. dollars) for the family, and they began looking for their own place.
The apartment hunt was hard at first, with landlords demanding references and credit reports, but then a Turkish immigrant, who lived above a rental unit, “saw our temperament and saw what kind of people we are,” Samuel says, “and demanded neither credit nor references.” He charges $600 Canadian ($472 U.S.) for the one-bedroom. With the government stipend, it left the family a little over $400 a month for food and incidentals, but Samuel says they were used to being frugal.
It’s easy to understand the landlord’s assessment of the family. Samuel is thin, with delicate features, and a soft, contemplative air, defying any stereotype of a police officer. And when I visited, Darline smiled warmly from the couch, where she nursed a robust 1-year-old, before releasing him to trot around the living room, making eye contact with each adult before bursting into delighted laughter.
A paper banner on the otherwise blank wall proclaimed Bon Fet – a Haitian Creole birthday celebration to honor Samuel, turning 36, and his son, turning 1. The rest of the place was immaculate, with only a few objects — synthetic flowers adorning a shiny yellow varnished wood dining table.
After more than a year of being homeless, lawyerless, and jobless in the States, Samuel and Darline were able to get their own place in Canada in less than a month. They’d also been assigned a public defender, accessed basic health care, and started getting free monthly public transportation passes. “Everything is moving much faster here,” Samuel told me last September. He knew he might never get to bring his two older children here to Canada, and that they might instead end up back in Haiti, but at the time he felt he’d placed his bet on the right country. “I don’t know tomorrow,” he said, “but I don’t regret coming to Canada, because the three of us, we’re really comfortable here.”
After more than a year of being homeless, lawyerless, and jobless in the States, Samuel and Darline were able to get their own place in Canada in less than a month.
Two months later, in November, the couple got their work papers, and Samuel found a minimum-wage job through a temp agency, scanning orders at a clothing-rental company.
But not everything was as fast as they’d like. It took months more for Darline to find work, and the asylum eligibility interview Samuel had scheduled for December was postponed indefinitely.
Most of the new arrivals stay at shelters for their first weeks in Montréal, until they start getting their monthly check and find their own place. When the provincial government saw that the YMCA would not be enough to meet the need, it cast around to see who had space, and managers of the Olympic Park, used in the 1976 Summer Games, offered up part of the stadium to eventually accommodate 900 people in rows of cots, while all around international competitions, concerts, and the renovation of the stadium’s landmark skyline tower whirled on. Other shelters opened around town, including in an old hospital and an old convent, but it was the image of refugees — mostly from Haiti, but also from around the world (other top asylum-seeker nationalities were Nigerian, Turkish, and Syrian) — being bused to the stadium that brought in waves of international media.
It also attracted activists. An anti-immigrant demonstration to be held outside the Olympic Stadium was canceled, but a pro-immigrant counter-rally went ahead, drawing hundreds of people, many carrying Réfugiées Bienvenues signs.
The stadium stopped housing migrants in September 2017, and today, due to the drop in new arrivals, the only shelters in use are an old hospital, an unused youth center on the grounds of what feels like a leafy boarding school campus, and the YMCA near downtown.
* * *
Jesula and James moved into the Y after coming to Québec in August. Their story is starkly different from that of Samuel and Darline, but it’s not unusual among new Haitian arrivals from the United States. For them, Canada is the eleventh country — and, they hope, last — on an odyssey that began more than a decade ago.
The two were high school sweethearts in the dusty northern Haitian city of Gonaïves. James remembers relatives who lived in the States coming back to visit and being treated like royalty. “I thought the sky over the U.S. was different from the sky over other countries,” he says with a laugh. Still, he never wanted to leave Gonaïves. He excelled in school, participated in a local debate club, and played on a national youth soccer team. But after their city was virtually wiped out by floods from a tropical storm in 2004, he decided to move to the Dominican Republic to live with his mother and continue his education there. His dream was to get a medical degree and return to Haiti to help meet a desperate need for doctors.
Jesula, meanwhile, stayed in Gonaïves. In the market, she sold goods imported from Canada with the help of relatives here. Assuming she had money because of her business, she says, thieves raided her house, stole her things, and raped her.
Asked if the perpetrators were caught, she laughs bitterly and says, “In Haiti, it’s not like it is here.”
Traumatized and fearful, Jesula fled to the Dominican Republic to live with James. But things didn’t work out there either. Both lacked the funds to complete school, and both were unable to find work.
Soon Brazil beckoned. Its economy was booming, and it needed workers to prepare for the World Cup and the upcoming Summer Olympics. In 2012 James made his way there, and in 2013 Jesula joined him. “There was no stress because from the moment we got there we were so lucky,” Jesula says. “I arrived in September, and in January I had residency. Imagine how comfortable we were.” Both found jobs easily, learned Portuguese, and settled in, forging strong friendships and a sense of community. But by 2015, the Brazilian economy was in serious trouble, jobs were lost, and Haitian migrants were no longer welcome.
Like thousands of other Haitians, Jesula and James made their way north, through Colombia, Central America, and Mexico, and finally to the United States. Once there, also like thousands of others, they were thrown in detention.
Their treatment by U.S. officials came as a shock. “I thought the U.S. was like Canaan, like paradise, like something out of the Bible,” James says. But as soon as they crossed the border, the couple was split up and sent to separate detention centers.
On an August afternoon in 2017, the couple sat in a park across the street from the Y, where they’d stayed for the previous four nights. Swing music blasted from a speaker nearby, and a man came over to ask if they want to join a free dance class. They politely declined.
Both said they felt at home in Canada. James dreamt of getting a doctorate in anthropology, and Jesula wanted to go to nursing school and learn to draw landscapes. She was pregnant for the third time. She’s miscarried twice — once in Brazil and once in the United States, but here she said she believed everything would work out. “I’m better here,” she said, “because I don’t like living in stress, and there [in the U.S.], the president would say something different every day, so I didn’t know where he really stood on anything. Here I can just be at peace.”
After arriving in the United States, they were detained for just a few days. They say they were lucky to be released much sooner than other Haitians, but the rest of their time in the States was hard. They moved to Boston, and eventually James got a work permit and a job, but the permit was set to expire last September, and he’d been unable to renew it. He also didn’t feel he was making progress in his asylum case.
Finally, Trump took office. “We heard about people being deported for nothing … people who went to see a judge and got deported,” James says. “We were afraid.”
Removals overall have slowed under Trump, but for Haitians they jumped from 300 in the 2016 fiscal year to 5,500 in 2017. That’s largely due to the end of a stay on deportations and a surge in Haitian migrants entering through Mexico. Meanwhile, arrests of immigrants with no known criminal conviction by Immigration and Customs Enforcement more than doubled from 2016 to 2017. Behind those stats are countless stories of men and women who have lived in the United States for decades being taken from families, jobs, and communities, often at a regular check-in at an immigration office.
* * *
Comparisons between the United States and Canada are constant, especially among those who entered both countries illegally. One man describes surviving a harrowing boat trip from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico only to be shackled at the wrists and ankles by U.S. border patrol agents. Others talk about being thrown in cold cells at the Mexico-U.S. border.
Elsie is a nurse and a resident of Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, in plateau farm country north of Montréal. She has been living in Canada for 30 years, but occasionally returns to her Haitian homeland. “I’m proud to be Canadian and proud to be Haitian, too,” she says. And she stays tuned in to the experiences of Haitian migrants around the region.
She spent a Sunday afternoon in October 2017 like she spent most Sundays: cooking rice and beans for family members and venting about what she’d been hearing. “There was that little Haitian woman who went to the U.S. from Brazil,” she said, “and she had to pay $20,000 to get out of prison! It’s a business! If people don’t pay $15,000 to $20,000, they put them on a plane.” Elsie understands that people are not deported merely for failing to pay the required bond, but she also knows that asylum-seekers are much less likely to get asylum if they are stuck behind bars. “Canada respects asylum law,” she said. “They don’t respect asylum law in the United States right now.”
In his first week in office, President Trump issued an executive order expanding the grounds for which immigrants can be detained, and limiting the use of parole for detained asylum-seekers. Over the first eight months of his presidency, according to a report by the nonprofit Human Rights First, parole rates for asylum-seekers appear to have plummeted, asylum-seekers are held for many months, and sometimes their release is contingent on payment of bonds as high as $15,000 to $20,000.
Canada respects asylum law,” she said. “They don’t respect asylum law in the United States right now.
Elsie’s Sunday gatherings now feature a special guest — her younger brother Yves. In July, Yves walked across the border at Roxham Road, then skipped the shelter by staying with his sister. He says he fled Haiti for the United States after “jealous” people attacked his business in Port-au-Prince. But with Trump in office, he says, he had a bad feeling about his prospects there. “He was withdrawing everything, banning refugees, talking about eliminating TPS, getting rid of protections for immigrants who came as children … so I didn’t know if I could get asylum.”
Like Samuel and Darline, Yves says he had to leave a child back in Haiti, so he’s anxious to get papers to bring her here.
Within a few months, Yves had his own place and a job at a pig slaughterhouse, but in April, a judge rejected his asylum claim, saying he should have sought protection in the United States. Yves is appealing the decision and says, whatever the outcome, he’s still convinced he made the right decision in moving to Canada. “Even if some of us are not qualified [for asylum],” he says, “the welcome is completely different here.”
* * *
In my conversations with asylum-seekers last year, I kept bringing up the statistic I’d seen, that only about half of Haitian asylum-seekers with cases finalized in 2016 were granted asylum. (For 2017, the acceptance rate dropped to 22 percent.) The response was usually a recognition that they might not succeed but an insistence that they made the right choice in coming to Canada anyway.
As Matthew Turner, the Roxham Road resident, suggests, “that Ellis Island thing” is more evident in Canada than in the United States today. This is certainly true in public discourse. In October, Canada swore in a new Governor General, an important Canadian figurehead selected by the Prime Minister. Trudeau chose astronaut Julie Payette, who delivered an installation speech in a mix of French and English, dotted with phrases in Algonquin. The speech seemed a delineation of what distinguishes Canada from its southern neighbor today. She talked about the importance of trusting science, of internationalism, tolerance, and compassion, and among her last words were these: “We are the true north, strong and free, and we should always look after those who have less, stand up for those who can’t, reach out across differences, use our land intelligently, open our borders, and welcome those who seek harbor.”
When it came to Syrian refugees, in the past couple of years, Canada has served to inspire and shame Americans wishing to be a more welcoming country. Since November 2015, more than 54,000 Syrian refugees have resettled in Canada, compared with fewer than 19,000 in the United States. Facebook video posts showed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeting families at the airport with winter coats and words of welcome. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of regular citizens stepped in to help. Private sponsors actually brought in and supported 43 percent of those refugees for a year.
It would be hard to draw comparisons between pre-approved Syrian refugees flying in and Haitians crossing the border and being arrested. For one, there is no private sponsorship system in place to care for the new arrivals from the States. However, many private organizations in and around Montréal are committed to helping them get settled and integrated.
Take Christ en Action church. It’s in an unmarked brick box-shaped building in a quiet neighborhood, but on Sunday mornings the drums draw you through the open door and into a vast space packed with parishioners in a full spectrum of garb, from form-fitting dresses to suits in black, white, and shiny pastel damask. Several turn to greet unfamiliar faces, offering greetings in French.
The churchgoers — largely Haitian and African — pride themselves on the warm welcome. At a service last September, Pastor Fofy Ndelo, who is Congolese, said a few words in Haitian Creole, then returned to French to give an update on which donations were now needed for “the refugees” — winter coats for adults and children, as well as furniture and bedding for those who’d found their own places to live.
About 15 so-called refugees sat in pews at the far end of the church, and after the service they filed into a back room for lunch. They found out about Christ en Action when members visited their shelters and brought them here on buses. While a number of them now lived in their own places, after their meal a volunteer would drive them all home. Later, another volunteer would pick them up to bring them back for dinner. These are services orchestrated by the church’s social action team, which, team member Shirley René told me, has 10 subgroups. “One group serves nonperishable food, a follow-up group sees what your needs are, another team gives clothes and bedding and furniture, another helps people find a place to live. … There’s a group that visits them in their homes,” and so on.
René, who is of Haitian descent and has been with the church for more than a decade, said about 50 new arrivals were regularly coming to the church, “because they love the way we welcome them.”
Many other Montréal churches also stepped up to help the new arrivals, especially in the heavily Haitian Saint-Michel neighborhood. So did Maison d’Haiti, a 46-year-old organization now housed in a modern, windowy, art-filled space that bustled last fall with Haitian men, women, and children, picking up and dropping off clothing and diapers, standing in line to get help with things like filling out asylum applications, or grabbing a Haitian meat pastry in the organization’s café.
A few blocks away, on Boulevard Crémazie, is CPAM, one of several Haitian radio stations here, and down the street is a towering, shining example of Haitian success in Montréal. Groupe 3737, named after its street number, inhabits some of the 12 floors in the curtain-glass-wall building, using them for start-up incubation and training. Frantz Saintellemy, Haitian-born and Saint-Michel–raised, founded the group with his wife, Vickie Joseph, with the intent of encouraging talented young people, mostly immigrants or children of immigrants — a reflection of the community — to invest in this long-depressed neighborhood.
Saintellemy wanted to help his community thrive by capitalizing on what is true in Canada as well as the United States: Immigrants are far more likely than the rest of the population to start businesses. And he sees particular promise in Haitian immigrants, who make up about a third of his group’s participants.
“If you’re from Haiti,” he says, “you were trading. It’s the number one business in Haiti. Trading is in their DNA, so a lot of them have an entrepreneurial mindset.” In Haiti, with so few formal jobs available, many people buy food or clothes in one part of the country — often on the Dominican border — to sell in another.
Saintellemy smiles as he speaks, sitting in a bright, spacious office behind a large desk cluttered only with some copies of Groupe 3737’s glossy bilingual magazine Black is Beautiful. He says in Montréal there are great prospects for new Haitian immigrants importing food and other goods from Haiti to sell to members of the diaspora here. There are also artists and artisans, and educated Haitians who spent years in the United States and are well-positioned to work as translators. What’s more, belying the image of asylum-seekers arriving on foot and staying in shelters, many actually have money to invest in a new business, Saintellemy says.
For those with tenuous status, he says, they’re particularly worth investing in for several reasons: For one, many employers are leery of hiring people without permanent status, and for another, creating a business could help them get asylum. “The quicker you can generate income [and] hire your own lawyer, your chances increase significantly,” he says, “and if you’re working and paying taxes, the harder it is for the government to tell you to leave.”
Saintellemy says that “without question” enthusiasm for starting a business is higher among people with tenuous status. He knows this because, in addition to doing clothing drives for new arrivals last summer, Groupe 3737 offered regular Business 101 classes for those living in immigrant shelters. Participants were taught about business laws and policies in Canada, specifically Québec, and given tips like how to advertise and bid on contracts online. Saintellemy says the courses drew up to 50 people.
Before founding Groupe 3737, Saintellemy spent years in the States, including studying electrical engineering at Northeastern University and taking a fellowship at MIT Sloan. I ask him about something James told me: that in Montréal, “the Haitians ahead of you help you,” but in the United States, not so much.
“Yeah,” Saintellemy says. “The Haitian community is very well organized here in Québec.” He says Haitians generally thrive more here. “I think it’s easier because of the French. Language isn’t as much of a barrier,” he says. “Second of all, the Haitian community is more financially secure here than in Boston or even New York or Miami … if you look at the percentage of Haitians doing well. … So it’s easier for them to help others when they’re doing well.”
James told me…that in Montréal, ‘the Haitians ahead of you help you,’ but in the United States, not so much.
Of course, many Haitians in Canada live in poverty and obscurity. But there are also plenty of Haitian luminaries in Canadian sport, arts, and politics — including several Olympic athletes; the novelist Dany Laferrière, inducted into the prestigious Académie Française; parliamentarian Emmanuel Dubourg; former Governor General Michaëlle Jean; and the deputy premier of Québec, Dominique Anglade.
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Migration across the border into Canada has fallen considerably since last summer, and Haitians now make up a small portion of that population, down from more than 80 percent. By last fall, Nigerians were overtaking Haitians in number, with shelter residents talking of horrors in Biafra.
Jean Nicolas Beuze, of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, says the overall decline in numbers might be due to falling temperatures and the start of school (the summer’s migrants included hundreds of children), and he believes the particularly precipitous decline in the number of Haitians coming across is likely because messages were sent through consulates and visiting politicians to correct misperceptions about the ease of getting asylum in Canada.
However, with the Trump administration’s announcement on November 20 that TPS for Haitians will end in July 2019, officials in Canada prepared for more Haitian asylum-seekers, with 27 winterized trailers — able to accommodate 200 people — set up at the border. The TPS decision affects at least 50,000 Haitian-born people who’ve been in the United States for more than eight years, and their American-born children, estimated at some 27,000.
Canada’s own version of TPS for Haitians expired in 2014, but most of its recipients were not made to leave the country. The estimated 3,200 undocumented Haitians living in Canada at the time were given almost two more years to apply for permanent residency without threat of removal, and most have been able to get permanent residency through “H&C,” or humanitarian and compassionate grounds, which takes into consideration the ties one has forged to Canada while living here.
Still, coming to Canada does not make Haitian border crossers safe from deportation. Canada deported several hundred Haitians last year — a dramatic increase over 2016, and 120 just in the first seven months of this year.
James is well aware that deportation from Canada is possible, and it’s a terrible thought. “If I’m deported, it’s like the end of the world,” he says with a nervous shriek of a laugh. “Haiti has no work. And when you are overseas, you have like 20 people depending on you, who are waiting for your help. Imagine, if they deport me to Haiti, you’ll see how many people will suffer.” He says his brothers, sisters and some friends rely on him for school and other expenses.
James doesn’t wallow in the fear of deportation though. “We have to await a response, we have to pray, and we have to accept the response, whatever it is,” he says. “But for now we have to recognize how well Canada has received us.”
Haitians who left the United States to seek asylum in Canada essentially left one uncertainty for another. And yet, for now, there is a sense that they can breathe easy because there is reason and justice in the system, that the rules will be followed, and that meanwhile the tools are there for asylum-seekers to make a life for themselves while they wait.
For Samuel, the only problem with being in Canada is that his two older children aren’t with him. “That makes me feel really, really bad,” he says, “because I grew up without my father, and I don’t want the same for my children.” He talks to them on WhatsApp every day, but, he says, “It hurts to hear them say, ‘Papi, when are you coming back? Papi, come get us!’”
A year after coming here, Samuel still has no idea when he’ll go before an immigration judge. It’s clearly wearing on him. His life is better here in many ways, but even with both of them working — him during the day and Darline as a night caretaker for handicapped adults, the cost of living is harder to manage here. Meanwhile, their two older children are growing up in another country, and there’s no knowing when and where they will reunite.
Now, when I ask him if he regrets moving to Canada, he hesitates, but then gives a firm no. “It’s a choice we made, without knowing how things would go.”
*The names of all asylum-seekers in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
Amy Bracken is an independent reporter and radio producer. She covers migration, economic development, religion, and human rights. She’s based in Boston, but in recent years she’s reported from Europe and across the Americas, especially Haiti. Her stories have been aired and published by PRI’s The World, Latino USA, USA Today, and Al Jazeera America, among others. She’s a graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she wrote her thesis on the detention of asylum-seekers.
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