The dirt road on the US-Canada border being exploited by migrants – and why Biden won't shut it
A small dirt track between New York State and Quebec will be one of the main focuses of a bilateral summit between US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when they meet on Thursday in Ottawa.
Roxham Road, an icy five-mile trail through dense woodland, has become a thoroughfare for migrants trying to enter Canada illegally, with a record 40,000 crossing last year.
A peculiar loophole in the immigration agreement between the US and Canada means that because there is no border station there, Canada is powerless to stop people coming into the country.
Now, under immense pressure from critics, including some in his own party, Mr Trudeau is trying to see it shut down by renegotiating the entire agreement.
There are important talks to be had on Chinese spy balloons, Ukraine and security missions in Haiti, but the increasingly alarming situation at Roxham Road has moved to the top of the agenda for Mr Biden and Mr Trudeau.
"It's a crisis of very significant proportions and it's a crisis of important proportions for us too in Canada with Roxham Road," Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the US, told CBC.
It comes as Canada's population grew by over a million people for the first time ever last year, in large part due to migration.
The population increased from 38,516,138 to 39,566,248 people, according to Statistics Canada, marking the country's highest annual population growth rate - 2.7 per cent - since 1957.
International migration accounted for nearly 96 per cent of that, according to the news release.
The increase was in part fuelled by government efforts to recruit migrants to the country to ease labour shortages, Statistics Canada said.
But illegal immigration also contributed.
In January, which is the latest month on record, 4,875 asylum-seekers crossed at Roxham Road unlawfully – more than double the number from the same time last year.
Many of the arrivals abandoned plans to seek asylum in the US, deterred by long processing times and restrictive definitions for asylum. They are from all parts of the world, including Venezuela, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
Behind the numbers is a complicated accord.
Canada and the US have a Safe Third Country Agreement, which means asylum seekers cannot enter Canada at official border points.
But the treaty has a big loophole, in that it doesn't cover unofficial points of entry like Roxham Road. If they had presented themselves at the border station just five kilometres to the East, they would have been turned back.
Migrants who cross at Roxham Road are arrested for entering Canada illegally, but once they have stepped foot in the country, they are legally allowed to apply for asylum.
After a few months living in a government-paid hotel while their applications are being processed, adults can start work and receive healthcare benefits, while children can enrol in public schools.
Officials in Quebec are struggling to cope with the huge influx of people and have started putting migrants on buses to other parts of the country.
The situation is not sustainable, but Mr Trudeau doesn’t want a temporary fix.
“The only way to effectively shut down not just Roxham Road, but the entire border to these irregular crossings is to renegotiate the Safe Third Country agreement,” he said previously.
That's not something the US is keen on - and Mr Biden is likely to want something in return.
It could agree that Canada can send back asylum seekers who cross between official points of entry, so long as Canada resettles more of the migrants from places such as Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba, who are in Mexico trying to enter the US.
There are other difficult discussions to be had.
Despite the unity over Ukraine, the US is unhappy with Canada over its defence spending, which has long failed to meet the target of 2 per cent of GDP set by Nato members.
The recent incursion of a Chinese balloon put the focus on Norad, the joint US-Canadian North American defence organisation that experts say is in dire need of upgrades.
Last June, Canada promised to invest £2.9 billion over six years to modernise Norad. But Canada's defence spending is around 1.3 per cent of GDP.
David Cohen, the US ambassador to Canada, told CTV that defence spending would be "a topic of ongoing conversation... because we do need more dollars for defence."