RONALD SYLVAIN WAS feeling confident as he approached the U.S.-Canada border crossing in Champlain, New York in a taxi with his wife and their 9-month-old son last July. The 36-year-old Haitian national had been assured that it was best to “do it legally.” After all, they are professionals: Ronald is an economist and his wife Pamela is a nurse. While other refugees opted to roll their suitcases into Canada over a narrow dirt path five miles to the west at Roxham Road, border agents would surely understand Ronald’s asylum request, based on the fact that gangs in Haiti had threatened him.
Instead, an agent directed his family to wait overnight. They slept uncomfortably on hard benches at the Lacolle Inspection Station next to a public restroom. The next morning, they were turned back to the United States. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, a 2004 treaty between the United States and Canada, most refugees who approach Canada at an official border crossing are rejected, on the grounds that they should have tried for asylum in the United States first.
Two weeks later, Ronald and his family decided to try to enter Canada again, this time over Roxham Road. (“Given the current situation in the U.S., we were really afraid to stay there,” Ronald later testified.) The process was smooth, eerily so. Yet migrants who attempt to cross the border at land ports only have one chance to make a refugee claim. Without realizing it, they had already blown their shot. Ronald and Pamela are now fighting a deportation order from Canada.