Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caved. His decision last Friday to try to stop irregular border arrivals, by closing the Roxham Road irregular border crossing just 45 minutes south of Montreal, is not rooted in science or public health. Rather, it panders to panic, fear, and the incessant false information about migrants crossing at Roxham Road promoted by the anti-immigrant far right for years. Those far-right racists have been gleefully celebrating a victory for one of their pet causes.
Declaring that you are shutting down the border doesn’t mean you can. It’s logistically impossible given the U.S.-Canada border is thousands of kilometres — unless thousands of cops, border guards or soldiers are deployed — to monitor or prevent people who are motivated to cross the border at any one of hundreds of irregular spots. If you can’t cross directly at Roxham Road, you can cross just several hundred metres away, or kilometres away, not to mention anywhere else on the huge border. Shutting down official border crossings, and the main unofficial one at Roxham Road, does not mean it’s not possible to cross.
What attempting to shut down the border does mean is that migrants and refugees will take more risks to get into Canada at more isolated and difficult crossings. They will now more frequently rely on smugglers, many of whom are motivated by profit, not human concern. They will be more isolated and vulnerable.
The status quo prior to the March 20 announcement was that migrants who wanted to make refugee claims had an incentive to cross at Roxham Road, which was relatively safe and which had police on the other side that would process them and put them in the hands of border officials who would begin their refugee claim. The Safe Third Country Agreement — which still remains in effect despite calls to have it suspended or cancelled — prevents almost all refugee claims at regular border crossings, which is why refugee claimants logically choose to cross irregularly.
Despite whining by far-right racists — and the people who pander to them — the Roxham Road crossing was relatively quiet and orderly. There was an initial, exaggerated panic in the summer of 2017, involving using the Montreal Olympic Stadium to temporarily house refugees, as well as the setup of a temporary, underutilized camp near Lacolle (minutes from Roxham Road). But since that period, migrants and refugees have been able to settle in their destinations, usually Montreal and Toronto and other urban areas, in a relatively straightforward fashion.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, irregular migrants at Roxham Road were obligated to go into a 14-day quarantine in housing provided by the federal government. Now, after the attempted border shutdown, migrants will still cross irregularly but at other isolated (and sometimes dangerous) locations. They will have to rely on others (including people not always acting in good faith) to move around, and will not be in any obligatory quarantine or monitored otherwise for their health.
Trudeau’s cowardly decision about the border is not in the interests of public health, and many public health experts have contested the necessity of border shutdowns during pandemics. They argue that border shutdowns create panic and more irregular crossings that are not monitored. Trudeau’s decision was purely political — despite his claims to respect facts and science — and very dangerous to collective public health as well as the well-being of migrants and refugees.
This attempted border shutdown, an attack on the rights of migrants and refugees, could very well be permanent. As we all know, these “special measures” made in the context of a crisis have a tendency to be normalized after the crisis ends, such as the surveillance and security state implemented after 9/11.
Many of us on the progressive, radical left will be organizing to make sure there is a new normal — massive social spending on health, education, and other social services, debt cancellation, wealth redistribution, free public transit, a permanent end to deportations, an end to the prison industrial complex, more social solidarity and mutual aid, attacks on capitalism and eventually an end to capitalism. But the new normal can just as much involve right-wing dreams, which include authoritarian governments using fear and panic to rule by decree (with a compliant mainstream media) and a permanent attempted border shutdown, attacking the right of migrants and refugees to move and seek asylum.
Roxham Road is a litmus test of our collective values, about whether migrants seeking asylum will be treated fairly and humanely, or used as easy scapegoats in a time of panic and fear. Prime Minister Trudeau has chosen the latter.