Bookseller Zulema Diaz fled her native Peru after being kidnapped, beaten and robbed, hoping to find safety in the United States. Instead, she said she experienced homelessness and sexual harassment as she worked off-the-books on a hospital cleaning crew.
So when Diaz, 46, heard New York City was distributing free bus tickets, she said she hopped on a bus for Plattsburgh, a town close to the Canadian border, then took a taxi to the irregular crossing at Roxham Road to enter Canada and file an asylum claim.
A sharp increase in asylum seekers entering Canada through unofficial crossings -- including many whose bus fares were paid by New York City and aid agencies -- is intensifying the pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reach an agreement with President Joe Biden to close off the entire land border to most asylum seekers.
Canadian immigration minister Sean Fraser discussed irregular migration with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in Washington, D.C., this week. Trudeau has said he would raise the issue when Biden visits Ottawa on March 23-24.
Many of the arrivals abandoned plans to seek asylum in the United States, deterred by long processing times and restrictive definitions for asylum, according to aid officials and interviews with asylum seekers.
On a snowy day in late February, about three dozen asylum seekers, some wheeling suitcases, others carrying backpacks, trudged along a snow path from New York State to Quebec.
For Diaz, the city's payment of the roughly $150 fare to Plattsburgh offered an extra incentive for a decision she had been weighing for months.
"This presented itself like a miracle," she said. After arriving in the US in June last year, she was given a January 2024 date to appear in US immigration court.
"I felt protected in the United States, it just takes a long time to process the documents."
New York City has been providing bus and plane tickets to homeless people who can demonstrate a source of support in other cities and countries since 2007. Refugee aid groups began offering free bus tickets to migrants in August last year but said they stopped in November for cost reasons. New York City said it began its effort in September.
The office of New York City Mayor Eric Adams would not say how many tickets the city and partnered charity organisations purchased for migrants. Reuters requested comment from mayoral spokespeople Kate Smart and Fabien Levy; the mayor's immigrant affairs office; the Department of Homeless Services, and SLSCO, the contractor that handles the ticket distribution.
Smart said migrants choose their destinations.
"To be clear, New York City has not sent people to anywhere in Canada," Smart said. "We want to help asylum seekers stabilise their lives whether in New York City or elsewhere."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on processing times in the US asylum system. The Biden administration has called on Congress to overhaul immigration laws.
Almost 40,000 asylum seekers entered Canada through irregular border crossings from the United States last year -- nine times higher than in 2021, when pandemic restrictions were still in place, and more than double the nearly 17,000 who crossed in 2019. Almost 5,000 entered in January alone, according to the most recent figures from the Canadian government.
Canada accepted more than 46% of irregular asylum claims in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, according to Canadian government data. U.S. immigration courts approved 14% of asylum claims in the same period, according to U.S. government data.
At the end of last year, Canada had more than 70,000 pending refugee claims. The United States had about 788,000 pending asylum cases in U.S. immigration court.
Nigerian, Haitian and Colombian nationals accounted for nearly half of the irregular claims in Canada, according to previously unreported data from the Immigration and Refugee Board.
'PEOPLE ARE DISCOURAGED'
While the Safe Third Country Agreement allows US and Canadian officials to turn back asylum seekers in both directions at formal ports of entry, it does not apply to unofficial crossings like Roxham Road.
A Canadian government official who was not authorised to speak on the record told Reuters the U.S. has little incentive to agree to expand the agreement to the entire 4,000-mile border.
Asylum seekers in the United States wait more than four years on average to appear in immigration court, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. It takes at least six months after filing a refugee claim to get a work permit, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"People are discouraged with the long, long timeline they have for getting working papers and asylum hearings," said Ilze Thielmann, director of Team TLC NYC, which aids migrants arriving in New York.
In Canada the average processing time for refugee claims was 25 months in the first 10 months of 2022. That’s up from 15 months in 2019, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Raymond Theriault, 47, said he left his home in the Nicaraguan mining town of Bonanza aiming to connect with relatives in Canada, where he said his late father was born.
Theriault said he had struggled to find steady work and that local officials blocked him from opening a small seafood restaurant after he criticised the government.
After crossing into the U.S. at El Paso in November, he visited a daughter in West Virginia entering Canada at Roxham Road last month. In New York City, he paid $140 for a bus ticket to Plattsburgh.
Now at a government-paid hotel in Niagara Falls, he said he is happy with his decision to go to Canada.
"There is more support, they're more humanitarian," he said. "In the United States ... if you die of hunger, that's your problem."
The Quebec government has said the increase in asylum seekers is straining its capacity to house people and provide basic services. The federal government said it has relocated more than 5,500 asylum seekers to other provinces since June, the first time it has done so.
In his downtown Montreal office, refugee lawyer Pierre-Luc Bouchard said he has never been so busy.
"I have limited resources. I can't take everybody," he said. "My staff is getting tired of saying 'No.'"
RISING NUMBERS IN BOTH DIRECTIONS
Irregular crossings into the United States are also increasing.
U.S. Border Patrol said it apprehended more than 2,200 people crossing between ports of entry in the four months since October, nearly as many as in all of fiscal year 2022. The force said it deployed an additional 25 agents to the stretch of border that includes Champlain, New York, where most migrants were apprehended.
Immigration experts said closing off the border to asylum seekers could push migrants to take even riskier routes. Last year an Indian family of four froze to death in Canada's province of Manitoba as they were trying to cross the border into the United States.
"You’re just going to see people making more risky and dangerous choices and we’re going to see more tragedies happen," said University of Ottawa immigration law professor Jamie Chai Yun Liew.