As More Asylum-Seekers Flee To Canada, Taxi Rides To The Border Raise Red Flags
As high volumes of migrants flee the United States to apply for asylum in Canada, one popular route into Quebec is just west of Lake Champlain. To get to the snowy illegal crossing, many are calling a cab.
But there's a catch: Some of those cabbies are coordinating with U.S. Border Patrol, and that practice has some civil liberties advocates concerned.
For most people looking to apply for asylum in Canada, it's not as simple as showing up at a checkpoint. That's because an agreement between the two countries says if an asylum-seeker is already in the United States, he or she cannot then apply for asylum in Canada.
So many are walking across the border illegally between checkpoints.
Plattsburgh, New York, is about 25 miles south of the border. It's the last Greyhound stop before the border checkpoint. It's also the last place to grab a cab.
But if you do call a cab, someone else could be alerted, too:
"When the call comes in, we contact Border Patrol; we say, 'Hey, we got a call, it's going to this location, here's our ETA to that location,'" one Plattsburgh cab company owner explains. He has asked to remain anonymous because he doesn't want any trouble with authorities.
He says he bought into the taxi business in October, and the first time he dropped someone off at a rural road that dead ends at the Canadian border "then immediately, we got a call from Border Patrol say, 'Hey, this is protocol,' and from that point on we've always followed protocol."
But Michael Estrella with U.S. Border Patrol says, "there's no requirement for a cab company to check-in with Border Patrol as to their activities."
Yet Dylan, a driver with Northern Taxi, also said it was his company's policy to call U.S. Border Patrol when they get a request for drop-off at a known illegal border crossing location.
"We usually call Border Patrol, U.S. Customs, on our side ... and they usually meet me there to check them out," he says.
Estrella wouldn't comment further on how taxi companies might be under the impression that this protocol is required or encouraged.
All he would say is that U.S. Border Patrol does "get help from the community in various ways," but wouldn't say whether taxi companies are among those community members who call-in.
"I'm not going to get into a specific persons or person who is contacting us," Estrella says. "They're doing it as a service to themselves and the rest of their community."
Profiling by destination
James Lyall, the director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the practice of taxi drivers alerting authorities could have real civil rights implications.
"It's not the job of the cabbie to interrogate people, or assume anything about those people," says Lyall. "It's certainly not their job to do the job of the Border Patrol for them. And they can't be required to do the job of the Border Patrol by the Border Patrol."
Lyall says that if asylum-seekers learn that requesting a cab ride to a certain location may result in being detained, "people are very likely to take greater risks, put themselves in greater danger to avoid the Border Patrol just as they do crossing the southwest border."
"It's not the job of the cabbie to interrogate people, or assume anything about those people ... It's certainly not their job to do the job of the Border Patrol for them." - James Lyall, director of the ACLU of Vermont
Within 100 miles of the border, U.S. Border Patrol can stop people who they have reasonable suspicion are in violation of immigration status. But Lyall says he isn't clear that driving to the border would count as reasonable suspicion.
"An awful lot of vehicles go to the border. And courts have said that you can't base reasonable suspicion on a characteristics that would apply to large number of valid or lawful actions," says Lyall.
The cab drivers we talked to are taking people to a known illegal crossing location in the middle of the woods. But going to the border itself is not an illegal act. It's only once a person walks across the border outside of an official checkpoint that a person can be arrested.
To be clear, if U.S. Border Patrol stops a taxi and the passengers have paperwork showing they are in the U.S. legally — say they have a tourist visa, or perhaps they are in the process of seeking asylum status here — then U.S. Border Patrol cannot detain them. That's even if they are about to walk illegally into Canada.
Desperate to reach Canadian soil
But some asylum-seekers don't have legal status in the United States - and they can be arrested by U.S. Border Patrol before they reach Canadian soil.
The Plattsburgh cab company who asked to remain anonymous says he witnessed such an arrest last week, and it changed his mind about the so-called protocol of alerting authorities.
He says he was dropping off a woman from Haiti. Years ago, she had fled to the U.S. seeking political asylum and now has a young son who was born here.
Her visa had expired, and before the taxi reached the Canada border, she was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol.
The cab driver says the Border Patrol agent said she would likely be deported back to Haiti, and her son would likely be put into foster care in the United States.
The cab owner says after witnessing this, he changed his company's protocol. Now, the dispatch alerts Canadian authorities when they get a border run request.
Then, he said, the passengers can be arrested in Canada, where they have a shot at applying for asylum.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.