EMERSON, Manitoba, Feb 28, (Agencies): Jaime French was jarred out of bed in Emerson, Manitoba early one morning this month by pounding at her front door, just yards from the US border. A face peered in through the window, flanked in the darkness by others.
Outside were 16 asylum seekers, arriving at one of the first houses they saw after crossing a lightly monitored border between Canada and the United States. “They banged pretty hard, then ‘ring ring ring’ the doorbell,” said French, a mother of two young girls. “It was scary. That really woke me up.” The town has become the front line of an emerging political crisis that is testing Canada’s will to welcome asylum seekers.
Hundreds of people, mainly from Africa but also the Middle East, are fleeing US President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, migrants and refugee agencies say. Many asylum seekers say Trump’s election and subsequent crackdown on illegal migrants spurred their plans to head north. Those arriving in Emerson come on foot in the dead of night, unnerving its 650 residents.
Some fear the influx of unscreened migrants while others are frustrated by the cost and effort forced on the community. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under increased pressure from the left, which wants him to let more in, and from the right, which is fearful of an increased security risk. Trudeau must tread carefully to ensure the issue does not complicate relations with Trump.
The cooling welcome in Emerson is a microcosm of growing discontent over Canada’s open door policy for refugees. Last week, an Angus Reid poll found that while 47 percent of respondents said Canada is taking in the right number of refugees, 41 percent said the number is already too high. “It could become a real political liability for the government,” said Christian Leuprecht, a politics professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, noting that spring will lead to more crossings as travel gets easier. After the 16 migrants left French’s home, without being admitted, they found truck driver Brad Renout two doors down leaving for work. “I was going to leave them all outside,” Renout said. “I figured, to hell with (them) for coming over the border in winter.” When he saw children among the group, Renout allowed three women, three toddlers and two teenagers into his kitchen.
Early Sunday, Reuters witnessed at least seven migrants bundled in new parkas and bulging backpacks walking into Canada from Minnesota, following railway tracks in the icy dark. Ismail, a 25-year-old Somali man, said they had walked for 22 hours without sleep across North Dakota. As police lights flashed distantly, Ismail said he was afraid to walk toward them. He thought the group was still on US soil. Canadian police caught up with them shortly afterward and arrested them for illegally entering Canada.
The group squeezed, uncuffed, into a police minivan and headed to a government office for questioning. “We feel sorry for the people,” said retired grain farmer Ken Schwark. “I just wish they would come through the legal way.” A 2004 agreement between Canada and the United States means asylum seekers must submit applications in the United States if they arrive there first. But if they find a way into Canada, they can apply for refugee status there