Five years later, Kate Onakpo can still remember the moment, standing at the edge of a short dirt path, when she gripped her daughter, then walked into Canada.
“My life changed from there. My new journey for me and my child started from that minute,” Onakpo recalled recently.
Like many asylum seekers, she entered Canada at Roxham Road, a well-travelled unofficial border crossing in Hemmingford, 50 kilometers south of Montreal.
Onakpo and her daughter arrived in 2017 along with a wave of fellow Nigerians.
For the last five years, she has been working as a caregiver in Montreal — often bathing, feeding and caring for elderly patients.
In a recent interview, Onakpo said she left her home country to get away from her ex-husband.
With the goal of keeping her daughter safe, Onakpo quit her job in Lagos and headed to the US — where she stayed for a week, before she went north.
Roxham Road was closed for much of the pandemic but reopened last November.
Quebec is calling for it to be shut eleven again. Premier François Legault said the province cannot house all the incoming refugee claimants.
“It’s unacceptable,” Legault said earlier this month. “It’s impossible because we don’t have the capacity.”
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose federal government regulates the crossing, quickly shot down the idea, saying closing the road would not prevent asylum seekers from crossing the border.
Images of migrants crossing into Canada at Roxham Road have been the source of heated debate at both the provincial and federal levels for years.
But for new arrivals like Onakpo, Roxham Road represents a pathway to a new life.
“I found hope here,” Onakpo said, speaking from her home in Montreal.
Thousands make the journey
When she arrived in Quebec, Onakpo pursued a job in health care — and quickly found work in a sector that has struggled to recruit and retain workers.
She said the job was a good fit with her inclination to help and care for others.
But she also had a challenging time with her uncertain legal status. After her initial request for asylum was rejected, Onakpo turned to a therapist.
“At that point, I just believed I needed help,” she said. “That almost took my life. It was not easy on me at all.”
Onakpo appealed the decision and ultimately became a permanent resident in 2020.
More than 7,000 asylum seekers have crossed the border unlawfully into Quebec from the US between January and March of this year, according to the federal government. That’s nearly 3,000 more arrivals in three months than in all of 2021.
“Asylum seekers by definition, do not flee their country by choice. It is by obligation,” said Stéphanie Valois, president of the Quebec association of immigration lawyers (AQAADI).
For geographical reasons, it’s a complicated journey coming into Canada, she says.
“We’re isolated,” said Valois. “Unless you come by plane, which is quite limiting because there are not many people who can get a visa, you have to come geographically.”
Roxham Road has become a key entry point under the US-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement, which states that refugee claimants must seek protection in the safe country they enter first.
That means asylum seekers who come into Canada from the US using an unofficial port of entry can pursue their claim in Canada without being sent back south of the border.
Marjorie Villefranche, the director of Maison d’Haïti, a community organization that works closely with many new arrivals to Montreal, said between 30 and 40 asylum seekers who crossed Roxham Road arrive at the center every day.
“What we are seeing now is that these asylum seekers are people who arrived via the United States, but the States were just a transitional period for them,” said Villefranche.
“Their ultimate goal was to come to Canada.”
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From a ‘desperate situation’ to ‘essential work’
James Moline, who is originally from Haiti, crossed the border in June 2017 with his three children, all under the age of 16. Two months later, his wife — who was living in the US — joined them.
“It was perfect because the family was together again,” said Moline.
Like many newcomers, Moline and his wife were drawn to the health-care sector because of the huge number of jobs available. Moline said he’s studying to be a nursing assistant, while his wife works as a personal care assistant.
The family received residency status in December 2021, four years after their initial request.
“It was like a Christmas present,” said Moline.
Another asylum seeker, who asked not to be named for safety reasons, sees the border crossing as an opportunity for migrants to make the best out of a “desperate situation.”
The 38-year-old Jamaican came across Roxham Road in 2018.
WATCH | Roxham Road debate playing with people’s ‘only hope,’ says asylum seeker:
He was on his way to job as a machine operator when he heard Legault was calling for Roxham Road to be closed.
“To me, it’s ironic because a lot of people who came through Roxham Road, like me, worked essential work,” he said. “I know people who are doing two jobs, working like 15-20 hours out of the day and they’re people from Roxham Road.”
He said he’s fortunate but fears he may not be able to stay in Quebec. His last appeal was dismissed by the Federal Court and he now faces deportation.
“It’s a very anxious time,” he said.
For her part, Onakpo is settling into her Montreal home in LaSalle. But she’s aware that this news can be shattering for arriving migrants.
“I can’t imagine getting to that point and the road is closed. I wouldn’t know what to do, where to go, with a child.”