Americans were the third largest group seeking asylum, spurred by fears they would be deported by the Trump administration
Tiroude and Gislyne are Haitians by birth and migrants by necessity.
The couple’s 18-month-old daughter, however, was born in Fort Lauderdale, and – as an American by birth – she is part of a growing number of US citizens seeking refuge in Canada.
In 2017, some 2,550 US citizens applied for asylum in Canada – an increase of more than sixfold from 2016 and the largest such number since at least 1994, according to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
Americans were the third largest contingent of asylum seekers in 2017, after Haitians and Nigerians. The vast majority are children born to Haitian parents, according to experts.
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“Most of the Americans applying for refugee status are the children of non-residents,” says Stéphane Handfield, a Montreal-based immigration lawyer. “They are US citizens because they were born there, but they come across the border with their parents because they don’t want to be separated.”
Trump has repeatedly said he wants to find a way to end birthright citizenship, although legal scholars say this is impossible.
Tiroude and Gislyne fled Haiti for Brazil in 2014, in search of work and safety after Gislyne was targeted for her advocacy.
Two and a half years later, they headed north after Tiroude lost his job, entering the United States in November 2017 – just as the Trump government announced that it wanted 59,000 Haitians living legally in the US to leave the country.
In May, the couple moved again – this time with a newborn baby – becoming some of the roughly 6,000 Haitian asylum seekers who fled the US for Canada last year.
“We left because President Trump said he wanted to deport people,” said Tiroude, who, like his wife, didn’t want his last name used.
The family flew from Florida to Plattsburgh, New York, and crossed into Canada by way of Roxham Road in Quebec, a remote section of the border which has become a well-trodden path for asylum seekers.
Because they crossed the border “irregularly” they were quickly arrested. They claimed asylum and were eventually released to await their hearing in front of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.
They chose their destination largely because of a tweet by Justin Trudeau welcoming to Canada “those fleeing persecution, terror and war” – which came just as Trump made his first attempt to bar refugees from majority Muslim countries.
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Tiroude and Gislyne originally fled Haiti because Gislyne had been targeted by political rivals for her advocacy work. “If I go back to Haiti, I die. It’s that simple,” she said.
But their odds aren’t good; last year, only about one in four Haitian asylum applicants were successful.
They would be compelled to return to an unstable country still reeling from the 2010 earthquake and near-chronic political unrest. For their two children – their son was born in October – Haiti is a foreign country.
“Going to Haiti as a parent is dangerous. For my kids it’s worse because they don’t know it. They won’t know how to speak Creole,” Tiroude said. “We’re very pessimistic, because they’re starting to deport people.”
Since Trudeau’s tweet, his government’s welcome for asylum seekers has cooled notably, with Ralph Goodale, the country’s public safety minister, saying that there was no “free ticket” into Canada.
Canada’s border agency hopes to increase deportations of failed refugee claimants by up to 35%, according to a recent investigation by the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster.
Meanwhile, Trudeau’s Liberal government – under increasing political pressure over immigration – has dispatched officials to Haiti and Nigeria in an attempt to convince would-be asylum seekers to stay put.
Tiroude said he was aware of the backlash against migrants, though he is facing bigger issues. His immigration hearing was recently postponed for a second time, leaving him and his family in limbo once again. “We are pessimists. We don’t know when our turn will be. We are waiting. We hope it works,” he said.