Thursday, June 21, 2018
News Roundup

Since Trump, a quiet New York road has become a busy exit from U.S. (w/video)

CHAMPLAIN, N.Y. —— Roxham Road is a quiet country road jutting off another quiet country road, where a couple of horses munch on soggy hay and a ditch running along the muddy pavement flows with melted snow. It cuts through a thicket of dormant trees, passing a half-dozen trailer homes and after almost a mile runs into a line of boulders and a rusted railing with a sign: Road Closed.

Chris Crowningshiele has been driving a cab, on and off, for 30 years in this rural corner of upstate New York known as the North Country. He lives south of here in Plattsburgh, and his fares usually come from ferrying students from a state university there or picking shoppers up at a Wal-Mart in his gray minivan. But in recent weeks, riders have been asking him — two, three, sometimes as many as seven times a day — to bring them to the end of Roxham Road.

He is carrying them on the last leg of their journey out of the United States. Just on the other side of that sign is Canada. Border officials and aid workers there say there has been a surge in people illegally crossing from the United States in the months since President Donald Trump was elected, many of them natives of Muslim countries making bids for asylum. Roxham Road, just a brief detour from a major border crossing on Interstate 87, has become one of the busier illegal points of entry.

Crowningshiele picks up passengers in Plattsburgh, mostly at the airport or the bus station, and over the 25-mile drive north, they have told him that they had traveled from across the country. Some were migrants from Yemen and Turkey. They confided that they were fearful, of what was happening in the countries they wanted to leave behind — not just their homeland but now also the United States — and of what they faced once they stepped out of Crowningshiele's cab.

"You wonder what's going through their heads, you know?" he said. Many of his passengers have been families, with parents carrying young children and whatever possessions they could take with them.

"People just want to live their life," Crowningshiele, 48, said, "and not be scared."

Given their proximity to Canada, people around here have always had some awareness of the world beyond the border. A pop music station in Montreal comes through clearly on the radio, and it is not all that unusual to make a run to the other side to shop. But the steady stream of cabs that have started driving up Roxham Road has forced them to reckon with life on the border and decisions made in Washington in ways they never have before.

This is not exactly Trump Country. In Clinton County, which includes Champlain, Hillary Clinton eclipsed Trump by 610 votes. Many residents on Roxham Road said they did not bother to vote and had followed politics just enough to feel disenchanted, if not disgusted.

"I used to just blow everything off," said Melissa Beshaw, whose house is the second to last before the border. "I was never into politics until this road became famous."

She, like some others, was quick to assign blame to Trump. Immigration advocates in Canada said the reasons for fleeing were more complicated: The president's executive order in January on immigration that affected countries that are mostly Muslim was certainly a factor, but so were frustration with the immigration process in general and concern over anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Migrants have been coming to places like Roxham Road not because they want to sneak over the border; the expectation is to walk right into the arms of the Canadian authorities. An agreement between the United States and Canada makes it virtually impossible for them to ask for asylum at a legal border crossing; Canadian border officials would have to turn them back. But a technicality allows them to bypass the agreement by illegally setting foot in Canada.

"Once they get arrested, they're already on Canadian soil," said Jean-Sébastien Boudreault, the president of the Quebec Immigration Lawyers Association, "so we have to let them do a refugee claim."

Just after a gentle rain let up on a recent afternoon, a blue Prius with a yellow taxi sign perched on its roof approached the border.

A husband and wife got out. He loaded on a backpack, a duffel bag and several shopping bags. She carried a young boy. The couple declined to speak with a reporter, though the man said they were Turkish. The family was the second spotted arriving that day on Roxham Road, with at least two other cabs coming later. By the count of the people living on the road, it was a slow day. Almost 20 people had come the day before.

As the family approached the border, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told them it was not legal for them to enter here. If they continued, he said, they would be arrested.

"I apologize about this," the man replied, his voice unsure, "but I have to break your rules."

He paused.

"I'm sorry."

The couple hopped across a narrow, mucky creek that divides the two countries. A Canadian officer gently grabbed the woman's left arm as she held her son in the crook of her right arm, helping her up.

Lawyers said families like this one were usually taken to immigration offices at the nearest legal border crossing, where they can officially ask for asylum. If they have identification and do not appear to pose a security threat, the lawyers said, they are typically released and given a bus ticket to Montreal, where they wait for a hearing on their refugee status. Many of them are staying at a YMCA there.

The border crossings, despite being freighted with emotion, happen quickly and can seem almost procedural, occurring over and over every day in recent weeks.

Tony George Hogle Sr. has lived on Roxham Road for almost 25 years, moving in when it was still a strip of dirt. He said that years ago the road had been an official crossing. He certainly has noticed the pickup in traffic recently. He has seen people left at the intersection, forced to drag their suitcases a mile through the snow. His sleep apnea keeps him awake, he said, and he has seen taxis creeping up the road in the dead of night.

Hogle did not vote in November and said he was "leery" of Trump. On some counts, he said, the president is "doing all right." Trump's campaign promises about the economy and bringing back jobs had some appeal. There are some jobs around here, mostly in warehouses, Hogle said, but he wished there was better-paying work. He used to be a forklift driver in a warehouse before a medical condition left him on disability. His wife works at a gas station and at a discount store.

"I think what he set out to do, he's doing," Hogle, 54, said of Trump. "He's a man of his word."

He understood the president's motivation in pursuing his immigration policies, but the situation at his own doorstep made him question the "way he went about it."

"I can see his point of view," he said. "He's trying to protect the United States. It's hard. Some are good. Not everybody's bad. Just like the white man — you have good ones and you have bad ones. There should be something better than this."

Across the street from Hogle, Matthew Turner said the influx had been unsettling. "I'm not okay with it," he said of the border crossings, "but I definitely can't blame them." He recently discovered the lock on his shed had been tampered with and worried that border security was not tight enough.

"I used to hunt along the border," said Parker Cashman, who was staying with Turner, "and there's too many places where it's too easy to cross."

"Maybe we need to build a wall!" Turner replied, jokingly. "Have Canada pay for it!"

He pointed out that Roxham Road can be hard to find. Until recently, if you typed it into Google Maps, the pinpoint landed on a roadway on the other side of the border. "It's almost like this road doesn't exist," said Turner, 21, a warehouse worker.

It is unclear how the border hoppers, as some call them, first found Roxham Road. There are moments when residents are frustrated by it, like the day when local television stations discovered what was happening and came out with their satellite trucks. But, mostly, they sympathize with the people passing through.

Beshaw, who stays at home to raise two grandsons in her custody, said she had never had a conversation or even shared a word with the migrants. But she has watched as the taxis arrive again and again, and she sees the passengers, especially the children, getting out and trudging through rain, snow and bitter cold.

"I don't feel sorry for the adults as much as the kids," she said. Still, she understands their motivation. "All they want is a life like what we have," she said.

Beshaw also wishes that life for her would return to how it was just a few weeks ago. "It was a quiet road," she said wistfully.

As dusk settled in, dogs could be heard yapping through the woods, and Beshaw's grandsons pedaled around on their bicycles, chasing each other.

Before long, darkness blanketed the trees and stars freckled the vast country sky. All was quiet on Roxham Road, except for the babbling water in the ditch. Still, just over the border, Mounties were posted on a muddy hill, waiting for the next car to arrive.

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