Five Mexican citizens apprehended this week after illegally entering the United States in remote northern Maine were returned to Canada within hours under a rule put into place as part of the U.S. government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A similar policy by the Canadian government allows the return to the United States of most people seeking asylum in Canada.
While the restrictions haven't ended illegal immigration into the United States from Canada, the emergency policy has all but ended the use of Roxham Road in Champlain, New York — one of the most well-known routes used by people fleeing the U.S. to seek asylum in Canada.
For more than three years, Janet McFetridge, a humanitarian activist from Champlain, helped the northbound asylum seekers.
"'It makes me wonder where they are and whether they are safe," she said of their absence.
Prior to COVID-19, depending on the circumstances of the individual border crosser, the five people apprehended in Maine on May 12 could have been charged with a federal crime in the United States or quickly processed for deportation to their home country.
President Donald Trump closed the borders with Mexico and Canada to all-but-essential traffic in March. For those entering illegally or seeking asylum, the administration has suspended immigration laws on public health grounds, giving border officials authority to rapidly expel them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's order allowing rapid expulsions along the Mexican and Canadian borders is set to expire May 21, but administration officials have said it could be extended.
The vast majority of the expulsions have been on the southern border. CBP statistics show that between the time the rule was implemented and the end of April, 20,860 people were returned to Mexico. On the northern border, there were 27.
One of the first instances of returning northern border crossers came on March 21, the day the policy was implemented, when Border Patrol agents in Richford, Vermont, apprehended six individuals who had just illegally entered the U.S. from Canada. They were returned to Canada the same day.
Justin Mohammed of Amnesty International Canada, which is party to a pending Canadian lawsuit challenging the safe third country agreement that allows the northbound migrants to seek asylum in Canada, said his organization was extremely concerned by the Trump administration's summary expulsion of migrants back to Canada, including people who could possibly seek refugee protection.
"The terms of the arrangement between Canada and the U.S. have never been publicly disclosed, and thus it is unclear how Canada is ensuring that it will not be complicit in any violations committed by American authorities," he said Friday in an emailed statement.
But Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tight restrictions on immigration, said Friday the immigration crackdown is having the desired effect of reducing illegal immigration.
"It's pretty clear the main reason for this is the policies," Vaughn said. "They are not going to get away with making asylum claims, they are not going to be able to game the system."
Since around the time Trump took office, tens of thousands of immigrants in the U.S. who despaired of finding a permanent safe haven began crossing illegally into Canada to seek asylum. Many of those asylum seekers used Roxham Road, a back road in Champlain that ends at the Canadian border.
There, they would cross the border and be arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but were allowed to file an asylum claim. In most cases, they were released while their applications were pending.
After the pandemic hit, the Canadian government implemented its own border restrictions that allows it to return most asylum seekers to the United States. The current order is now scheduled to expire June 30.
In an email response to questions, the Canada Border Services Agency said that between March 21 and May 13, 26 asylum seekers were returned to the U.S., including 21 "irregular" border crossers — 14 in Quebec and nine in British Columbia. The other three asylum seekers presented at a port of entry in southern Ontario and were sent back to the U.S.
Two other asylum seekers were allowed to enter Canada under exceptions to the rule that include being an unaccompanied minor or a U.S. citizen seeking to make an asylum claim in Canada.
In the Maine case, Customs and Border Protection says the immigrants were apprehended May 12 near the St. Juste Port of Entry in Maine's Big 10 Township, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) southeast of Quebec City.
They were spotted by a local resident emerging from brush near the border. The local then gave the five people a ride to the nearby border crossing, where they were taken into custody by the Border Patrol.
Later that same day they were returned to Canada at the Armstrong, Quebec, port of entry.