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Canadian Border Officials Expand Checkpoint To Handle Influx Of Refugees

Kathleen Masterson
VPR file
The Lacolle border checkpoint north of Champlain, N.Y., has seen such a surge in asylum-seekers that officials have opened a makeshift processing center in the basement of an old cargo building.

The Canada Border Services Agency has created a makeshift refugee processing center to respond to the influx of refugees crossing the border west of Lake Champlain.

Quebec has seen 452 asylum-seekers in January alone, some of whom entered the country by illegally walking across the U.S.-Canada border in upstate New York. 

At the St. Bernard de Lacolle border checkpoint north of Champlain, New York, officers say they have moved processing equipment and other supplies into the basement of an old cargo building.

"It's couches that they can sleep on — they're being cleaned — there's janitors as well, there's offices, there's a fingerprint machine, there's vending machines, the restaurant will come and deliver food," says Dominique Fillion, an enforcement officer with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).  She spoke to a large group of U.S. and Canadian journalists at a press event Monday.

Fillion says the CBSA has also called in backup officers from inland posts to help run the Lacolle checkpoint.

Tuesday on Vermont Edition: Welcome To Canada: Seeking Asylum In The North

People from Burundi, Eritrea, and Sudan make up the top three nationalities seeking refugee status in Quebec, after entering  from the U.S., according to Fillion.

"The refugee claimant that the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] will bring us here, the ones that do come in through an [illegal crossing] roads, in order to establish if they're eligible to make a refugee claim, that's basically what CBSA does here," Fillion says.

She says CBSA takes the asylum-seekers' fingerprints to run background checks using international databases and has them fill out documentation forms.

"This all helps us establish if they are eligible to claim, that means that they can be heard in Canada, the government can hear their refugee claim," she says. "And if not they're not eligible, then Canada will return them."

If the asylum-seeker entered into Canada illegally, that means he or she would be returned to his or her home country. Those that entered the Lacolle border checkpoint legally, driving up from the U.S., would be turned back to America.

Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR
At the Royal Canadian Mounted Police communications center in Montreal, technicians monitor live-camera screens of several popular illegal border crossings. If people cross into Canada, the command control can alert patrolling police to the incident.

Fillion says the process typically takes only a few hours, but for some larger families it could take longer, and they would have to stay overnight. CBSA provides them with couches and blankets, and they can pay for food from the nearby restaurants that deliver.

An asylum-seeker can only be held at the checkpoint for up to three days, Fillion says. However, she says they can detain people longer if they are deemed a flight risk, have a criminal background or if their identity cannot be verified.

CBSA officials wouldn't release data on how many of the asylum claims have been made by people who have illegally walked into Canada, many of whom often walk directly into arrest by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But Fillion says much of the spike in asylum claims comes from illegal entries.

Last year saw a 240 percent increase of asylum claims made in Quebec, with a total of 2,527 claims made in 2016 and 1,054 claims made in 2015. Officials would not say what percentage of those claims were granted refugee status.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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