It is known as la route de l'espoir - the highway of hope. Each year, about 5,000 migrants make their way north along Interstate 87 from New York to file refugee claims at St-Bernard-de-Lacolle, on the Quebec border 65 km south of Montreal. Many of them arrive in New York with fraudulent passports, which they often hand back to the human smugglers who brought them to the city. Until this year, Ottawa had difficulty convincing the United States to do something about the illicit gateway. But that may finally be about to change - in what some observers have heralded as a new era of cooperation between Canadian and U.S. immigration authorities.
Washington has long grumbled about illegal migrants sneaking south across the border from Canada. Those complaints reached a crescendo last December when alleged Algerian terrorists were caught entering the United States at Port Angeles, Wash. and Beecher Falls, Vt. But the United States also acknowledges the border is a two-way problem. And this fall, Maclean's has learned, U.S. and Canadian authorities will embark on the Lacolle Project, to investigate human smuggling through the United States and along la route de l'espoir into Canada. Investigators will gather intelligence on refugee claimants to verify their identities and the smuggling routes along which they arrived in North America, with the ultimate goal of stemming the flow.
Under the project, new arrivals like Mirza Ashraf Baid will find themselves under much closer scrutiny. On a recent holiday Monday, the 42-year-old Pakistani sat in the Immigration Canada building at Lacolle, tearfully thinking about his wife and six children still in his home country. Baid acknowledged getting into the United States with a false passport before undertaking the journey north and filing a refugee claim at Lacolle. But he had no choice, he says: in Pakistan he was persecuted for belonging to the wrong political party.
Critics say Washington and Ottawa are trying to establish "Fortress America" - keeping not only terrorists, war criminals and gangsters off North American shores but also refugees. But one Canadian embassy official in Washington who asked to remain anonymous says Ottawa's immigration policy is to welcome more immigrants who apply through proper channels in their home countries - a planned 50 per cent increase over the next few years - while clamping down on undesirables. The Lacolle Project, he says, exemplifies the "fantastic and unprecedented" cooperation between immigration authorities in the two countries.
It extends beyond Lacolle. Besides the ever-growing exchange of intelligence information, Canada and the United States are consulting on visas, and cooperating at foreign embassies to stop people smuggling from overseas. The eventual aim, the diplomat said, may be a more open U.S.-Canada border. But in order to accomplish that, he told Maclean's, "you have to have the type of relationship that we're trying to build. You have to have those safeguards to make sure we are protecting each other's back."
It wasn't always like that. With the passage by Congress in 1996 of new measures to combat illegal immigration, it appeared as though Washington had turned its back on Canada. Section 110 of the bill called for more stringent monitoring of visitors to and from the United States. But the fear of potential bottlenecks at airports and border crossings became a catalyst for high-level diplomacy. One result was amendments to the bill to ease passage between the United States and Canada. Another was the November, 1997 Border Vision agreement between Canada and the United States. Its aim was to stop unwanted visitors, but not impede the $1.4-billion-a-day trade between the two countries.
The Lacolle Project is one of the fruits of that agreement. Canada hopes to place an agent at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to assist in checking stories of migrants at the Quebec border, while an American agent will be stationed at Lacolle. With access to different data bases, the agents will be able to verify the stories of migrants and identify fraudulent claims immediately.
Canadian immigration intelligence documents, obtained by Maclean's, show that Sri Lankans and Pakistanis, the most common refugee claimants at Lacolle, have been getting into the United States on fake Indian passports. That information has been sent to agents and airline officials overseas, as well as immigration agents at airports across the United States. (Investigators have found that people intent on becoming refugee claimants in Canada are flying into airports as far away as Los Angeles before they make their way north, usually crossing in the Niagara area or Lacolle, the two most popular entry points.)
The intelligence dossiers also reveal that refugee claimants from Russia and Kazakhstan continue to pose problems at the Canadian border. But the largest growth in refugees to Canada is from Argentina, whose nationals have been exempted from having to possess U.S. visas since July, 1996. Conversely, Americans have been complaining about Canada's visa-exempt status for Mexicans, Costa Ricans and now South Koreans; about 100 Koreans were caught entering Washington state from British Columbia earlier this month.
That might have resulted in a diplomatic row, but under the Border Vision agreement the dispute is being handled by a visa coordination committee. (Canada requires no visa for 52 countries, while the United States gives visa-exempt status to 32 countries.) "We will never be directly coordinated," says Greg Leithead, an Immigration Canada intelligence analyst, "but we'll be far closer together - we have to be."
That new, joint approach extends to the sharing of U.S. satellite intelligence to identify potential people-smuggling ships arriving off the West Coast. Among the main concerns is people smuggling from China, a problem that affects both countries. In widely publicized cases last summer, officials in British Columbia detained 590 Chinese refugee claimants who arrived in decrepit boats, a fraction of the Chinese migrants who are suspected of arriving in Canada each year. The United States confronts the same problem, but many of the illegal arrivals to Canada end up in the United States (U.S. immigration authorities conservatively estimate that between 3,000 and 5,000 Chinese enter the United States illegally each year, almost all of them from Canada).
Demetrios Papademetriou, an immigration expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, says the American modus operandi has been to locate suspected smuggling ships outside U.S. territory and escort them to Mexico, which is not bound to consider refugee claims because it did not sign the Geneva convention on refugees. As a result, Papademetriou says, "there is a quick turnaround process" - returning the passengers to China on flights paid by Washington. The same offer, Papademetriou says, has been extended to Canada. Canadian government officials contacted by Maclean's would neither confirm nor deny that assertion.
According to Papademetriou, who just completed a two-year study on North American border integration, the United States is cooperating with Canada "across a remarkable number of potentially contentious issues." He envisages the Canada-U.S. border gradually disappearing "without any real compromise in any of the important security or revenue collection priorities of each partner." And the Lacolle Project, he adds, is the type of experimentation that is essential to convincing Washington and Ottawa to take further steps.
But not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Some Canadian critics say the cozy collaboration may weaken Canada's refugee system - and result in legitimate claimants being turned away. That concern notwithstanding, Canadian immigration officials are pleased with the U.S. acknowledgement that the border is a two-way street - and that both countries need to cooperate if they hope to stem the flow of unexpected migrants.
Maclean's July 31, 2000