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Thousands Of Haitians Enter Canada Amid Fears Of Deportation From U.S.


Several thousand Haitians illegally crossed from the U.S. into Canada this month, asking for asylum. They're afraid of being deported from the U.S. The Trump administration has said it might end temporary protected status for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports this illegal migration is putting pressure on Canada's prime minister.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: So many Haitians came to Canada this month the government ran out of space in Montreal and had to house 300 of them temporarily in a sort of conference center resort in the small city of Cornwall, Ontario. It looks more like a hotel than a migrant camp.


SOMMERSTEIN: Francois Bonhur stands in the sun outside. A boy clings playfully to his waist. A girl hula hoops next to him. Bonhur's in his 30s. He flew from Miami, took a taxi to the border and crossed illegally because he says he no longer felt welcome in the U.S.

FRANCOIS BONHUR: President Trump - he don't love nobody. He don't care.

SOMMERSTEIN: By contrast, he says this is great.

BONHUR: Eating three time a days. Everybody makes something like safe. I like that.

SOMMERSTEIN: Boehner says it shows Canada cares.

BONHUR: The government is the best. It's the best.

SOMMERSTEIN: Standing next to him is Cornwall City Councilor Elaine MacDonald. She says behind the smiles and the boosterism for Canada is something deeper.

ELAINE MACDONALD: They're kind of auditioning to become Canadians and refugees. And so they have to stay positive. I imagine there's a current of desperation just seething below the surface here in the people we're talking to.

SOMMERSTEIN: Not only does MacDonald want the Haitians to stay in Canada. She says some should stay here in Cornwall, which is trying to rebound from a series of factory closures, instead of joining the huge Haitian community in Montreal.

MACDONALD: We're closing schools here (laughter). We have an aging population. So this would be a great way to stave off that.

SOMMERSTEIN: About 7,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, have entered Canada illegally this summer. Some Canadians see the country is too welcoming. A Reuters poll found almost half want illegal border crossers deported. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is drawing fire for positioning himself as what many commentators have characterized as a sort of anti-Trump, welcoming immigrants on Twitter. One opposition lawmaker called the migrants Trudeau's guests. Last week Trudeau responded to his critics, warning there'd be no shortcutting for border crossers.


PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Canada is an open and welcoming society because Canadians have confidence in our immigration system and have confidence that we are a country based on laws.

SOMMERSTEIN: Trudeau even sent a Haitian-American lawmaker down to Florida to dissuade more Haitians from coming north. The debate's uncomfortable for a country that prides itself on tolerance and diversity. Sophie Bezinet is locking up her bike in downtown Cornwall. She says she has a problem with migrants just crossing the border.

SOPHIE BEZINET: I feel like if you do it, you should do it properly and not just come in and expect us to help.

SOMMERSTEIN: But Beverly Wright, who's waiting for a bus, says there is plenty of room in Canada for people who need help.

BEVERLY WRIGHT: The country's always improving. So you know, I'm not worried about if it's too much.

SOMMERSTEIN: The Haitians' stay in Cornwall is ending for now. They're being bussed to Montreal to await an immigration hearing and find out if Canada will welcome them for good. That could take months. In the meantime, they'll stay with free housing, health care and a stipend. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Cornwall, Ontario.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATURAL CAUSE'S "EMANCIPATOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.