LACOLLE, Que. — The last RCMP building came down Monday at Quebec's Roxham Road, which has been used by more than 100,000 migrants since 2017 as an unofficial border crossing into Canada.
Dust and the sound of crumpling metal filled the air while an excavator demolished a white building located at the end of a rural road about 50 kilometres southeast of Montreal, by the United States border.
RCMP Sgt. Charles Poirier told reporters the temporary structure was designed to last a few years and was no longer needed, because the flow of asylum seekers across the border has slowed dramatically in recent months.
"The number of migrants that cross through Roxham has dwindled and our presence is no longer necessary," he said.
The unofficial crossing was shut down in late March after the United States and Canada closed a long-standing loophole in the 2004 Safe Third Country Agreement to make the deal apply to the 8,900 kilometres of shared border, rather than just at official border crossings.
Poirier said about 113,000 people used Roxham Road since 2017 to enter Quebec from Upstate New York. Now, the flow has slowed to about 14 a week, spread over the entire Champlain sector, which includes Roxham Road and surrounding areas.
The RCMP will no longer maintain a full-time presence at the road but will continue to patrol the border with their counterparts from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, he said.
Under the 2004 Canada-U.S. agreement, asylum seekers have to apply for refugee status in the first of the two countries they enter. Before the loophole was closed, people were able to cross from the United States at unofficial spots — like Roxham Road — and claim asylum in Canada.
Well before 2017, Roxham Road had been a popular spot to cross, but it started seeing a spike in asylum seekers after the U.S. cracked down on illegal immigration and imposed new restrictions on refugees under then-president Donald Trump.
In response, RCMP built infrastructure at the site to deal with the heavy foot traffic.
Poirier said that while in the past "99.9 per cent" of irregular crossings into Quebec were at Roxham Road, people are now entering from "all over the territory." On Monday, Poirier said staffing levels would be returned to pre-2017 levels and resources would be distributed more evenly along the border.
He acknowledged that the change in the agreement means more asylum seekers are crossing through wooded areas, which can put them at risk.
"The temperature is getting colder at night, and it's easy to get disoriented and once you get disoriented, you walk for hours in the woods, then hypothermia sets in," he said. "And if you're with young children then it becomes a problem."
He said there has also been a rise in the number of people headed the opposite direction into the United States, sometimes hours after landing at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport.
RCMP are investigating whether human smuggling networks, which Poirier said are likely tied to organized crime, are involved in illegal crossings between the United States and Canada. There are reports that Mexican cartels are involved in smuggling, but he couldn't confirm their participation.
Frances Ravensbergen, who lives near Roxham Road and is a member of the community group Bridges Not Borders, said the demolition of the structures is nothing to celebrate. All that closing Roxham Road has done, she said, is "pushed the problem to other places," such as airports, elsewhere along the border, and in Plattsburgh, N.Y., where her group often sees asylum seekers camping outside the bus terminal with nowhere to go.
While the changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement have slowed the flow of people at Roxham Road, the number of asylum seekers arriving by air has increased.
In August, there were only 84 RCMP interceptions in between official border points, compared to almost 5,000 in January. However, the number of asylum claims processed at airports reached 4,315 in June before falling to 3,220 in August — compared with 1,370 in January.
Federal data suggests that a decision to temporarily accelerate the processing of visitor visas to reduce a backlog contributed to the increase. Data provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada shows that the country granted 1,290,390 temporary visas between January and July of this year, almost as many as it issued in all of 2022. In the same period, more than 11,500 visa holders claimed asylum, compared to 12,665 for all of 2022.
In a recent email, the department noted that the percentage of people who arrive on a temporary visa and claim asylum remains low — usually around one per cent — and is lower in 2023 than in the two previous years.
Ravensbergen, who attended Monday's demolition, said that while Roxham Road wasn't "the perfect solution," it at least offered a safe place to cross.
What's truly needed, she said, is for Canadian leaders to "take their place in the world" and address a growing challenge from migrants who need new homes due to climate change, war and extreme inequality.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press