Crossing the Line
On August 18, 2019, I drove to Roxham Road, a site that straddles the New York-Quebec border.
It was mid-afternoon when I drove past Plattsburgh, New York, in search of Roxham Road, a popular border point for unsanctioned entry to Canada. The border cuts through this rural road which runs north-south. I knew I was closing in on the border as the landscape de-densified, barren fields and fragmented roads interrupted the infinite forest. I pulled off the highway, the proximity of the border was palpable. First, I noticed security cameras littered in the landscape, barely visible. Then, warning signs reading “Road Closed” and “illegal to cross the border.” When I finally turned north onto Roxham Road, I saw it: concrete barricades hugging the horizon, halting my path ahead.
I parked my car and started the final approach on foot. Before I reached the border, officers had already exited the processing facility, assuming I was a migrant attempting to cross. Although I expected their presence, it was still disquieting. Their eyes fixed on mine, while I looked steadfastly ahead. I could see the border hollowed from the forest—an infinite expanse of nothing but mile markers.
The agents were skeptical, even after I explained I was there with Bridges Not Borders, a nonprofit organization that provides comfort and resources to migrants while cataloging border enforcement activity. Sandy, a volunteer, soon joined me and shared items we would be offering to asylum seekers: bracelets, dolls, and water bottles. For asylum seekers, the distinction between non-essential and essential can be an emotional one. As trivial as the dolls and bracelets may seem, they provide emotional comfort, reminding them of home and a childhood left behind.
As we waited for taxis with asylum seekers to arrive, I noted a garbage bin brimming with maps and clothing—items they were forced to dispose of while crossing, Sandy explained. I pressed further: “What do you mean by forced?” “Migrants can only cross the border once, so they must leave behind what they cannot carry on foot,” she said meekly. At this constructed threshold, migrants face a choice: what is critical and what is disposable? Their survival is at stake.
Asylum seekers leave their country of origin—be it the United States, which has grown inhospitable to many marginalized groups, or another country—and arrive in New York City, from where they travel by bus to Plattsburgh.1 Taxis take them the last twenty miles to Roxham Road.
Families with young children, lone travelers, and newly married couples arrived in succession. We offered our smiles, hugs, and support, then watched as they crossed into Canada, defying the officers’ warnings to return. The Safe Third Country Agreement prohibits asylum claims at official ports of entry but permits them at unauthorized points, incentivizing unsanctioned crossing along the border.2 No asylum seekers let fear deter them that day; they knew their right in seeking Canadian refuge.
In 2020, Western conceptions of “essential” are being upended and reoriented, and as a result, borders are being further exploited as tools of power. Across the world, national borders have been closed to non-essential travel. While mitigating travel during a pandemic may be critical, Canada and the U.S. have abused their power by rejecting the entry of those with valid asylum claims and not providing them with due process.3 Policies define for whom travel is “essential,” willfully blind to the very real and essential needs of asylum seekers. Closing the borders is an opportunity to obstruct the passage and rights of asylum seekers, branding them as “non-essential”.
As the wave of migrants slowed, I looked at this empty border—a ditch, a carved forest, and the expanse of sky above. Were it not for its political intent, it would be a beautiful place to see the stars. But it has been constructed as a threshold, constricting mobility by including and excluding.
After three hours, Sandy and I exchanged goodbyes. I walked to my car heavily aware of my mobility. As a dual citizen, I could cross the border with ease.
- Rick Rojas, “Since Trump, Quiet Upstate Road Becomes a Busy Exit From U.S.,” The New York Times, March 7, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/nyregion/champlain-ny-canada-migrants.html. ↩︎
- Sarah E. Barrett, “Seeking Asylum Across the International Boundary: Legal Terms and Geopolitical Conditions of Irregular Border Crossing and Asylum Seeking Between the United States and Canada, 2016 - 2018.” Thesis, University of Vermont, 2018. ↩︎
- Ian Austen, “In Shift, Trudeau Says Canada Will Return Asylum Seekers to U.S.,” The New York Times, March 20, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/world/canada/trudeau-asylum-seekers-coronavirus.html. ↩︎