Academic journal article Refuge

"We Are in the Middle of Two Great Powers": Refugees, Activists, and Government during the Plattsburgh Border Crisis of 1987

Academic journal article Refuge

"We Are in the Middle of Two Great Powers": Refugees, Activists, and Government during the Plattsburgh Border Crisis of 1987

Article excerpt

We are in the middle of two great powers, the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. doesn't want us here. Canada doesn't want us - now anyway. I can't go back to Salvador. So we wait here.

--"Carlos," March 1, 1987 (1)

I truly believe that was Plattsburgh's finest hour.

--Rose M. Pandozy,

Clinton County Social Services Commissioner, August 3, 2012 (2)

Confused and often penniless, hundreds of would-be refugees like Carlos found themselves unexpectedly trapped between Canada and the United States. On February 20, 1987, Canadian immigration officials barred hundreds of prospective refugees from entering Canada until after their asylum applications had been processed, effectively stranding them in small communities just south of the U.S.-Canada border. This refusal took most refugee claimants from the sixteen war-torn countries on Canada's B-1 list by surprise. Prior to February 20, nationals from countries on the B-1 list who applied for asylum at a Canadian port of entry were automatically accepted into Canada while immigration reviewed their asylum applications. The list reflected the Canadian government's belief that most of those nationals had deserving claims for asylum.

Canada's suddenly closed gates shocked refugees and activists who knew of Canada's previous reputation as a welcoming country for refugees. Just a few months prior to Canada's revocation of the B-1 list, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees awarded the Canadian people the Fridjof Nansen Medal for outstanding service to refugees, marking the first time the award was given to a people or government. (3) This article examines why, with such a sterling record in refugee rights, the Canadian government reversed course, what happened to the refugees it rejected, and how the arrival of hundreds of refugees transformed the communities they were stranded in.

Canada's change in policy stemmed from a shifting refugee and immigration climate in Canada brought on by shifts in global refugee flows, administrative inefficiencies in Canada's immigration office, and a public fearful of an "overwhelming" tide of refugees. One of the most notable consequences of this policy was the creation of refugee shelters along the U.S.-Canada border. Particularly interesting is what I call the "Plattsburgh Border Crisis" in Plattsburgh, NY. This small town of fewer than 30,000 people suddenly found itself, in the spring of 1987, hosting hundreds of refugees trapped between a border newly sealed by the Canadian government, and a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (ins) threatening to deport them. During the course of four months, refugees, activists, and local government officials built and maintained a temporary refugee camp, caring for up to 200 refugees while also providing legal and educational services. I argue that though the Plattsburgh Border Crisis grew out of transnational changes in immigration and refugee policy, the local response demonstrates the ways that refugees, public services, private charities, and citizens can cooperate to provide temporary refuge in spite of state disregard and active national hostility. In Plattsburgh, this experience transformed both the participants and the region.

A few scholars have examined the ways that U.S. and Canadian refugee policy shaped each other during the 1980s. Most notable among them is Maria Cristina Garcia's Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Some studies of U.S. and Canadian asylum policy briefly mention Canada's closing of the border in February 1987. In Transnational Ruptures, Catherine Nolin discusses how changes in U.S. immigration legislation in 1986 created "asylum demand" across the U.S.-Canada border. Julie Young's "Seeking Sanctuary in a Border City: Sanctuary Movement(s) across the Canada-us Border" pays particular attention to the collaboration between Sanctuary Movement groups in Detroit and Windsor during the 1980s and early 1990s, briefly discussing the Canadian government's decision to close the border to asylum-seekers in 1987. …

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