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World

U.S. Migrants Stream Across Border Into Canada

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There is a spike in the number of migrants who are crossing the U.S. border not into the U.S. but out of the U.S., not from Mexico but to Canada. From Quebec to Manitoba, there are reports of people leaving the U.S. to seek asylum in Canada, trudging through deep snow, literally risking life and limb.

Rita Chahal is executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. She's in Winnipeg, where she works with people who have crossed illegally into Canada. Welcome to the program.

RITA CHAHAL: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: And tell us first, who are these people, and where are they coming from?

CHAHAL: Well, they're coming from a number of areas. Certainly the ones that we've seen most recently have been from home countries, to the Somalia, Ghana, Nigeria, Burundi. But many of them have also been in the U.S. And they are making inland claims because of the difficulties at the border.

SIEGEL: In the U.S. You say, some of these people have been living in the U.S. for a while.

CHAHAL: Yes.

SIEGEL: And doubtful of what will happen to their claims to remain here, they're heading for Canada.

CHAHAL: That's what they're telling us. And some of them have been detained in the U.S. Some have been scheduled for deportation. Some may have not even made a claim yet and decided to come here. But those who have come, they are almost - well, I would say all of them do say to us that if I go back to my country of origin, I will be killed.

SIEGEL: How do the numbers of such migrants in the past few months compare to the past?

CHAHAL: In an average year, we would see 50 to 60. However, in the fall of 2016 is when it really started to spike. In January alone of 2017, we had 40 files that we opened.

SIEGEL: And you're just talking about Manitoba right now.

CHAHAL: This is just Manitoba. You know, the numbers in other provinces, from what I'm hearing - in Quebec, particularly - is much higher.

SIEGEL: And when you meet these people, once they get to Winnipeg, what are they telling you about the journey they've made?

CHAHAL: Well, first of all, they're very tired, and they're exhausted. This particular weekend, there was a family that had a 6-month-old, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. That was very concerning to us - that this family had made a trek for more than six or seven hours in very deep snow. So when we're starting to see families coming in exposed to the elements, it is very concerning to us.

SIEGEL: How does Canada treat them? Does it treat them as people from Somalia or Djibouti, or does it treat them as people from Minneapolis, the United States?

CHAHAL: Well, I think we just treat them as human beings regardless of where you come from. They have the right to seek asylum in Canada. So we - that's our starting point.

SIEGEL: But do they have the legal right to seek asylum in Canada if in fact...

CHAHAL: Well, yes.

SIEGEL: ...They're coming from the United States?

CHAHAL: They have the right to seek asylum. There is a lot of discussion around the Safe Third Country Agreement. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't go into the complexities of that agreement.

SIEGEL: My understanding of the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada is that if people who live in the United States get on a plane and went to Canada and presented themselves there seeking asylum, they'd be sent back to the U.S.

CHAHAL: That's why they're crossing the border because if they were to come to the border and make a claim right at the border, and then they would be actually sent back. So the risks that they're taking is because of that. However, when they do cross, they do get arrested, they get taken to Canadian Border Services, and they're processed there.

SIEGEL: The moment of the current spike is the middle of winter.

CHAHAL: Yes.

SIEGEL: What is the U.S.-Canada border like between Minnesota and Canada at this time of year?

CHAHAL: Right now, it's very cold. You know, minus 30 to minus 40 is not unusual for us.

SIEGEL: Miss Chahal, it sounds like you're in a very tough spot here. You're taking a very open, humanitarian attitude toward people who've made this terribly dangerous trek across the border during the dead of winter. You don't want to encourage lots of people to do this, I assume.

CHAHAL: No, and we want people to know that - don't assume that you're going to get this. It is a chance - a fair chance at the possibility of getting asylum, but it is not in any way guaranteed.

SIEGEL: That's Rita Chahal, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, speaking to us from Winnipeg. That's in Canada. Thank you very much for talking with us.

CHAHAL: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS CAMPESINOS! SONG, "YOU! ME! DANCING!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.