In the Blaine motel, he lay awake all night, thinking and rethinking his plan.
“Carl,” as the twenty-something asked to be known, had traveled all the way from Iraqi Kurdistan to get to this border town. He had been working for an aid organization, helping people displaced by the Islamic State group (ISIS). He started getting texts accusing him of being an infidel, a spy, a tool of the Americans. “We know where you work,” one said.
He felt like he had lived his whole life in fear, if not from ISIS, then from other extremist groups that rigidly forbid drinking alcohol and listening to music, both of which he liked to do.
“I just want to go somewhere I can feel free,” he said.
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Saying he wanted to visit a friend, he got a tourist visa from the American Consulate in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, and then flew to Seattle, where he did indeed have a friend. But his real destination was farther north – not Blaine, which he reached via a $300 taxi ride, but Canada.
He could just walk across. Then he could apply for asylum. He just had to work up the nerve.
Hundreds have done so in recent months, using Washington as a steppingstone to a country they believe might be more welcoming than the United States. In large part, Canada has lived up to their expectations, although the arrival of these newcomers has not been without controversy.
All across the northern border, illegal crossings into Canada have picked up as President Donald Trump has sought to restrict the flow of immigrants and refugees into the United States, particularly those from certain predominantly Muslim nations. At the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enthusiastically resettled tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and offered safe haven to those from other countries, too.
Some making the trip pass briefly through the U.S., taking an indirect route because they find it’s easier to get visitor visas to this country despite Canada’s other open-door policies. Others have lived in the U.S. for years, often illegally, and decided they can’t do so anymore.
233 The number of illegal crossings caught by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in British Columbia, from January through April.
The greatest numbers have crossed on the East Coast and in the Midwest, attracting widespread news coverage when a few made their way through deep snow and arrived frostbitten. But as word of mouth has spread among desperate populations around the world, the westernmost part of the border also has become renowned.
Crossing there couldn’t be easier, suggest some YouTube videos, showing the largely unfenced Canadian road that straddles the border with Blaine: 0 Avenue.
Mona Hassannia, manager of Settlement Orientation Services, a Vancouver, B.C., nonprofit that helps asylum seekers, calls the route through Washington an “underground railroad.”
After Quebec and Manitoba, British Columbia ranks highest in the number of illegal crossings caught by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) – 233 from January through April, according to government figures. More apparently make it into the province without being spotted by the RCMP, judging by statistics from Vancouver nonprofits like Hassannia’s.
Once in Canada, asylum seekers encounter a very different system than in the U.S. – startlingly generous, by comparison, but in some respects more risky.
“Welcome to Canada”
The Welcome Centre stands six stories high in residential East Vancouver. The year-old, government-subsidized facility brings together an array of nonprofits and services for refugees.
Built at a cost of $18 million, it houses a medical clinic, classes for learning English, and offices where new arrivals can get help finding a lawyer, housing and government benefits. Asylum seekers are entitled to a monthly stipend (about $450 for an individual while their cases are pending) and access to Canada’s national health care.
Some even live at the Welcome Centre, in 18 shared apartments on the top two floors.
Most asylum seekers in British Columbia show up at the center, referred by immigration authorities, according to Chris Friesen, settlement-services director for Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, the organization that runs the facility. As such, it’s one of the best places to track what staffers say is a marked spike in cross-border traffic.
Since January, it has seen roughly 100 asylum seekers a month (including those intercepted by the RCMP) – a 67 percent increase, on average, over the number seen by the center’s nonprofits the year before, which was already much higher than in past years. The vast majority, according to the nonprofits, simply walked into Canada.
“It’s like crossing the street,” marveled “Veedu,” a Pakistani man who asked to be known by his nickname. (Like many interviewed for this story, he did not want to give his real name for fear of jeopardizing his asylum case.) He was standing outside the Welcome Centre on a sunny May Friday, among a cluster of residents around Syrian asylum seeker Fawaz Fakkas, who was smoking a hookah.
Veedu stepped across the alley where he was standing to demonstrate the short distance he, his wife and two children, 11 years old and 6 months, had to travel. “We hardly walked 10, 15 steps.”
The street was likely 0 Avenue. Veedu said he had seen this route into Canada on YouTube, and it drew him across the country from New York, where he and his family had spent eight months.
“This is the easiest way,” he said they determined, though he didn’t exactly know where it was. “Bellingham,” he said, when asked where he crossed.
After flying to Seattle, he asked a taxi driver to take them to the border.
The Safe Third Country Agreement, signed by the U.S. and Canada in 2002, requires asylum seekers to apply for protection in the first country they enter –but it does not affect those crossing illegally.
U.S. Border Patrol trucks are all around. One is regularly stationed at Peace Arch Park, accessed from both the U.S. and Canada and another frequent illegal crossing spot, according to Welcome Centre staff.
Edging toward the border after midnight that February day, Veedu spotted a Border Patrol truck in the distance. It didn’t approach.
Mario Ayala, director of the Inland Refugee Society, which has been struggling of late to find temporary housing for all the new arrivals, laughed in his Welcome Centre office as he said he suspects American immigration officers do nothing more than watch people sneaking out of the U.S.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jason Givens said agents sometimes stop people they see near the border, but let them go if they are legally in this country. If they see someone crossing into Canada, he said, they will alert authorities there.
“The system we have in place is working every well,” said RCMP spokesperson Janelle Shoihet.
RCMP officers found Veedu’s family after just a few minutes of walking. The family declared its intention to seek asylum. If it had done so at a legal port of entry, Canadian immigration officials would have been required by the Safe Third Country Agreement to turn the family back. But the agreement, signed by the U.S. and Canada in 2002 and requiring asylum seekers to apply for protection in the first country they enter, does not affect those crossing illegally.
“Welcome to Canada,” said one officer.
“Believe on me,” Veedu said, conveying his amazement in imperfect English. One officer, he said, even carried the baby stroller he was carrying.
Canada has continued to treat them well, he said. Close to dinner time now, Veedu went upstairs to eat and show his apartment, which his family shared with a Jordanian couple and an Iraqi Kurdish family, each taking a bedroom furnished with bunk beds.
Over a communal meal of basmati rice and fried chicken in a living room painted a calming green, Veedu stressed they would have never left New York if Hillary Clinton had been elected. “New York is a beautiful city,” he said.
They arrived on tourist visas and applied for asylum there, he said, declining to go into details of their reasons for seeking refuge. But after Trump was elected, Veedu felt people changed. He said his 11-year-old son was bullied at school. They decided to leave.
Off the lawn, into the road
Illegal migration is sparking debate in Canada, with conservatives, as in the U.S., calling for stricter controls. Still, asylum seekers get far more support there than in the U.S.
Here, those caught sneaking across the border are likely to wind up in jail-like detention facilities – a rarity in Canada, reserved for those who cannot prove their identity or have been convicted of serious crimes.
The practice in the U.S. accelerated under President Barack Obama, despite his relaxing of immigration enforcement in other areas, according to Jorge Barón, executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Under Trump, Barón said, whatever leeway there was is gone.
Those already in the U.S. who step forward to apply for asylum are generally not detained, he said, but they don’t get much help from the government. Depending on the state, they may get food stamps, and that’s about it.
Asylum seekers in the U.S. also tend to wait much longer for a decision on whether they can stay, sometimes years, whereas in Canada the process usually takes only a few months.
Canada also grants a higher percentage of asylum applications – 67 percent in fiscal year 2016, of those that passed an initial screening by immigration officials and ended in an official decision versus 43 percent of their counterparts that year in the U.S. (The U.S. acceptance rate does not take into account applicants who never got a formal decision on asylum. Many were allowed to stay in the country without receiving permanent protection because officials agreed not to deport them, perhaps because they weren’t a priority for removal under Obama.)
Still, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a Montreal nonprofit, “I would be very cautious.” Some types of asylum claims might be better in Canada, others in the U.S., she explained.
There are people here in the evening that aren’t here in the morning.
Bob Boulé, owner of Smuggler’s Inn, a B&B in Blaine
Both countries generally use the same United Nations-based standards for asylum – fear of persecution based on your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. But each country may look at certain types of claims a little differently. Claims based on gender, for example, tend to fare better in Canada, she said.
And if people are turned down in Canada, deportation is all but guaranteed. “They’re probably more protected in a sanctuary city in the U.S.,” said Harsha Walia, a founder of No One Is Illegal, a Vancouver group that runs a phone help line for immigrants.
Canada has its equivalent of sanctuary cities, including Vancouver, but they only guarantee access to municipal services like parks and libraries. Legal status is often a prerequisite for schools, hospitals, even rental housing, Walia said. If you’re living illegally in Canada and arrested by the police, officers will provide information to immigration authorities – something that U.S. sanctuary cities like Seattle refuse to do, despite pressure from Trump.
Canada still beckons, as those on this side of the border are also well aware. In Blaine, Bob Boulé owns a B&B whose sprawling lawn, planted with U.S. and Canadian flags, reaches right up to 0 Avenue. To cross into Canada, all you have to do is step off the lawn and into the road.
And people do, as the owner of the cheekily named Smuggler’s Inn makes clear.
“There are people here in the evening that aren’t here in the morning,” Boulé said, sitting on a balcony overlooking 0 Avenue and the residential neighborhood that lies beyond. He cited a Palestinian family, including eight small children, who recently stayed for a couple days, and then disappeared without showing up for breakfast or checking out.
He doesn’t help people cross, and makes sure whoever stays at his inn has been legally allowed into the U.S., he said. “At that point in time, our responsibilities have been taken care of,” he said.
Carl spent his sleepless night in a different Blaine establishment, his anxiety heightened by the weather. The young Iraqi Kurd had heard that a good way into Canada was to have a picnic in one of the city’s parks, then keep walking north. But when he got to Blaine one day in December, it was raining.
The next morning, he got up and went to the city’s Lincoln Park. He walked around, shaking.
He couldn’t go on. “It’s really hard to think about something illegal,” he said. He had never done so before.
So he spent $300 on a taxi ride back to Seattle, and applied for asylum here.
“It’s going to take a long time,” he said on a recent day at a Burien Starbucks. But he was resigned to the notion: Canada, for him, was unreachable.