A beautiful fence for the border? Not so fast

Posted May 31, 2018 7:46 a.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. _ Good fences make good neighbors, Robert Frost famously wrote in "Mending Wall." The line is frequently quoted but often misunderstood.

Frost's poem is really about the moral complexity of fences and walls, and how they are so often ineffective at their given task. "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out," Frost wrote.

I thought of the poem after reading about a proposal for a border fence, one that would, supposedly, deter the unwanted from seeking a new home by crossing into a foreign country. The operative word is supposedly.

A big, beautiful Trumpian wall along the Mexican border? No, ma'am.

This fence, recently proposed by the leader of a Quebec political party, would straddle the New York border near Plattsburgh and (supposedly) block the torrent of refugees who have been using rural Roxham Road as a path to asylum in Canada.

"We have several good fences builders in Quebec, so we're spoiled for choice," said Jean-Francois Lisee, leader of the Parti Quebecois.

Who would pay this fence?

"The Mexicans," Lisee joked.

Given that the political climate in Canada is gentler than that of its southern neighbor, the politician's idea was greeted by ridicule, not enthusiasm. Lisee quickly backtracked.

Maybe a hedge would do the trick, he said. (Seriously.) Or a strongly worded sign.

Regardless, Lisee's suggestion speaks to the concern in Quebec about what's coming this summer along Roxham Road and to the rising tension over what some describe as a refugee crisis. With a provincial election coming in October, the arrivals are sure to be a political issue.

Last year, 19,000 migrants exited at Roxham Road, an illegal border crossing. This year's pace is three times higher.

To see Roxham Road is to understand how remarkable the numbers are. The roadway is a narrow, sparsely populated dead-end in Champlain, population 5,000. Taxis and cars arrive at all hours, unloading migrants from around the country and world who are immediately arrested when they walk the narrow footpath that leads across the border.

The migrants are taking advantage of a legal loophole. If they went to a legal border crossing, like the one on Interstate 87 a few miles away, they would be turned back. By getting arrested, they are able to apply for political asylum.

Why they come to Roxham Road, instead of one of thousands of other roads, isn't entirely clear. Word of the road as an agreeable place to cross has spread online, and the Canadian government has built tents and other infrastructure that make it more agreeable.

When I visited last summer, many of the migrants were Haitian, but significant numbers were of Latin American or Syrian descent. Many were in here legally and had built lives in the U.S., but were concerned that President Donald Trump's immigration rhetoric would lead to policies preventing their continued stay.

"I came here for protection, but I'm not protected," said Sam Addey, a native of war-ravaged Syria who had been working in Manhattan restaurants.

Who arrives at Roxham Road shifts based on distant world events. Today, most are Nigerians who, fleeing Boko Haram terrorism, enter the U.S. on tourist visas. Canada has pressed for tougher screening of Nigerian visitors, but the U.S. government has not made changes.

Ironic, no?

I mean, Trump has castigated Mexico for failing to quell illegal migration at the southern border, but his administration cares not a whit about the problem on the northern border. If some Canadians feel pressed to build a good fence, it's because the U.S. is a bad neighbor.

"There's a certain percentage of the population here that's reacting in a negative way and saying we need to seal up the border," said Paul Clarke, executive director of Action Refugies Montreal, which aids asylum seekers.

The concerns are similar to those heard in the U.S. Some immigration critics worry that migrants will change Quebec's culture, Clarke said. Many more worry about the financial costs of immigration.

The Canadian government, meanwhile, is sending mixed messages. On one hand, it has all but told Haitians and Nigerians not to come, because the odds of winning asylum are long. Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tweeted his welcome _ #WelcometoCanada _ to those fleeing the most desperate parts of the world.

And ultimately, it is desperation that is leading so many to arrive at Roxham Road.

"People don't just leave their homes, fly around the world and cross the border at a little road for no good reason," said Wendy Ayotte, who lives near the crossing in Quebec and is part of a local volunteer group that assists the migrants.

She's right, of course, and that means a good fence is unlikely to deter them.

Contact columnist Chris Churchill at 518-454-5442 or email cchurchill(at)timesunion.com

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