CHAMPLAIN, N.Y. (Reuters) - Asylum seekers, mainly from Haiti, clambering over a gully from upstate New York into Canada on Friday were undeterred by the prospect of days in border tents, months of uncertainty and signs of a right-wing backlash in Quebec.
More than 200 people a day are illegally walking across the U.S. border into Quebec to seek asylum, government officials said. Army tents have been erected near the border to house up to 500 people as they undergo security screenings.
Over 4,000 asylum seekers have walked into Canada in the first half of this year, with some citing U.S. President Donald Trump’s tougher stance on immigration.
The cars carrying the latest asylum seekers begin arriving at dawn in Champlain, New York, across from the Canadian border. On Friday, the first groups included two young Haitian men, a family of five from Yemen and a Haitian family with young twins.
"We have no house. We have no family. If we return we have nowhere to sleep, no money to eat," said a Haitian mother of a 2-year-old boy, who declined to give her name.
Each family pauses a moment when a Royal Canadian Mounted police officer warns them they will be arrested if they cross the border illegally, before walking a well-trodden path across the narrow gully into Canada.
Asylum seekers are crossing the border illegally because a loophole in a U.S. pact allows anyone who manages to enter Canada to file an asylum claim and stay in Canada while they await their application outcome. Because the pact requires refugees to claim asylum in whatever country they first arrive, they would be turned back to the United States at legal border crossings.
They Haitian family is arrested immediately and bussed to the makeshift camp. Border agents led a line of about two dozen asylum seekers on Friday into a government building at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle to be processed.
The Red Cross is providing food, hygiene items and telephone access, spokesman Carl Boisvert said. He estimated the fenced-off camp, which has been separated into sections for families and single migrants, is about half full.
Border staff and settlement agencies are straining to accommodate the influx, which has been partly spurred by false rumors of guaranteed residency permits.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government was enforcing all immigration laws.
"Canadians consider our country to be a very generous country and I'm proud of that. But we're also a rules-based country ... and it's important for (Canadians) to know that our rules are being enforced," she told reporters in Edmonton.
Canada is on track for the highest refugee claims this year in almost a decade. More than 4,300 of the 18,500 people who filed claims in the first half of 2017 crossed the border illegally.
The majority of illegal border crossers have been arriving in Quebec. The mainly French-speaking province got more asylum claims in the first six months of 2017 than it did for all of 2016, according to provincial government figures, and the influx is prompting a backlash.
Francois Legault, leader of Quebec's right-wing opposition party Coalition Avenir Quebec, called for a harder line on asylum seekers in a Facebook post, accusing the government of issuing "an invitation to stampede toward the Quebec border without going through customs."
Once processed, asylum seekers are bussed to Montreal, which has opened its Olympic Stadium, a former hospital, a school and other places to provide temporary housing.
Asylum seekers face a long wait and an uncertain future: Delays for refugee hearings are the longest they have been in years and time spent in the United States can count against applicants claims.
Canada ended its ban on deportations to Haiti last year and the success rate for Haitian asylum seekers has been mixed.
Edmond Clervoir and his family spent three days at the Quebec border and have been in Montreal's Olympic stadium a week, sleeping on cots among the 2,400 people housed in the arena.
"There are many steps to go through," said Clervoir, who had worked in a Boston hotel for a year before packing up. "But we'll go through those steps."
Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler