So many asylum seekers are pouring over the Canadian border from the United States that authorities opened Montreal's Olympic stadium—a 56,000-seat arena and one of the city's most famous landmarks—as a temporary welcome center on Wednesday.
Between January and June 2017, more than 4,000 people hoping to attain refugee status crossed the U.S.–Canadian border at remote locations, with nearly 80 percent of them entering Quebec. Last month, more than a thousand asylum seekers arrived in the province, according to Francine Dupuis, who runs PRAIDA, a government-funded program that helps asylum claimants adjust to life in Canada.
"It's really quite a bit more intense than what we're used to."
—Francine Dupuis, PRAIDA
"It's really quite a bit more intense than what we're used to," Dupuis said.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre tweeted on Wednesday that as many as 2,500 asylum seekers entered Quebec via the United States during July, and about 500 people are currently being held at St-Bernard-de-Lacolle, where Quebec borders New York State.
About 70 percent of asylum seekers who have recently arrived in Quebec are Haitian, according to the province's Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil. Many Haitians fear their fate if they remain in the United States, because of the anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions by the Trump administration.
In May, then-head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly, extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for some 59,000 Haitians affected by the catastrophic 2010 hurricane in Haiti—but only by six months, rather than the typical 18-month extension. The prospect of facing deportation as early as January 2018, coupled with mounting anti-immigrant hostility from Trump, has motivated many Haitians to cross the border into Canada.
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"They think the Trump administration will fly them back to Haiti and they don't want to take a chance," Dupuis said. Coderre, on Twitter, welcomed Haitian arrivals and criticized U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration policies.
Even Trump's campaign and election coincided with an influx of asylum seekers fleeing the United States for its northern neighbor. As Reuters reported earlier this year: "More than 7,000 refugee applicants entered Canada in 2016 through land ports of entry from the United States, up 63 percent from the previous year, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA)."
Although 2004's Safe Third Country Agreement requires asylum seekers to "request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in," the thousands entering at remote locations along the border aim to avoid the agreement's main tenet, arguing that the U.S. is no longer a "safe" place for them.
Last month, the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International, and the Canadian Council of Churches, launched a legal challenge to the treaty, asking a Canadian federal court to strike it down in light of the Trump administration's war against immigrants.
"Our organizations have pressed repeatedly, expecting that Canada would move to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement as regard for the rights of refugees has rapidly plummeted under the Trump administration," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
"To our astonishment and disappointment, however, the Canadian government continues to maintain that the U.S. asylum system qualifies as safe," Neve added. "We are left with no choice but to turn to the courts to protect refugee rights."