DERBY LINE, Vt. - A Dodge Caravan with California license plates and a dozen passengers zipped across the border between Vermont and Quebec in October, heading north in a southbound lane unblocked by traffic.
Border agents could only watch as the van disappeared into Quebec. But the vehicle and its occupants didn't try to disappear.
About 35 kilometres later, they stopped in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Magog, Quebec, and asked someone to call the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. When the Mounties arrived, the Roma occupants of the vehicle applied for political asylum.
"It's as though they had it programmed into their GPS," said Magog police spokesman Paul Tear.
That may not be far from the truth. Canadian authorities announced Wednesday that they had broken up a circuitous but ingenious human smuggling ring that shuttled Romanians from Europe to Mexico and across the U.S. to the famously porous border between the twin communities of Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec.
Interviews and statistics gathered by The Associated Press in the weeks before the announcement revealed that the Romanians are largely ethnic Roma people. Canadian officials say many of the immigrants move to Toronto and Montreal, which have large Roma communities.
"Quite frankly, we really haven't seen anything like this in our immigration system before," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said at a news conference Wednesday in Stanstead.
The Roma are descendants of nomads who moved out of what is now India 800 years ago. They speak a distinct language, a variation of Hindi. They have faced centuries of oppression in Europe that many advocates — and some countries, like Canada — say continues today. They have been forcibly resettled through the ages and were imprisoned and executed in concentration camps during the Second World War.
A 2004 agreement between the U.S. and Canada in how the two countries deal with asylum seekers is driving the latest migration, experts told the AP.
If the Romanians were to present themselves at a Canadian border post, they would be refused entry and told to seek asylum in the United States, which has more difficult requirements and where asylum seekers are not eligible for welfare benefits.
Romanians seeking to enter the U.S. or Canada need pre-approved visas. They do not need visas to enter Mexico.
Once in Canada, the asylum seekers are freed in most cases from detention while their asylum claims are pending, a process that can take years. At the same time, they are eligible to receive public assistance benefits.
The appeal of the border crossing between Derby Line and Stanstead, as opposed to other points along the border with Canada, is apparent.
The two towns are separate only in name and country — otherwise, they are essentially one community. The border runs through yards and buildings. Until recently, people could freely walk across quiet residential streets to visit neighbours in another country.
Since Sept. 11, many of those streets have been blocked off and people required to pass through the border posts before visiting the other country. It's not entirely clear how Derby Line and Stanstead became the focus for Roma, but until repeated crossings like the one in October led the Canadians to beef up security on their side, agents didn't have the resources available to their American counterparts.
In 2010, 85 people crossed the border illegally at Stanstead, according to statistics from the Canada Border Services Agency. In 2011, that number rose to 168, and so far this year, it is 260.
Gina Csanyi-Robah, the executive director of the Roma Community Center in Toronto, said before Wednesday's announcement that she was aware of the border crossings between Vermont and Quebec only because of media inquiries. She doubted it was an organized smuggling system.
"This community works by word of mouth. So if you have one family going and finding it safe to claim asylum, you can guarantee there will be 10 families behind them, the relatives, the friends. And those 10 families are going to tell another 10 families each," she said.
For the Roma in Canada, life is less oppressive than elsewhere, but she said she believes the Canadian government is changing its immigration policies with the specific intent of excluding Roma. Aside from the government policies, Roma have been well received in Canada, she said.
Canadian officials said many arrived indebted to a criminal organization and in some cases engaged in crime to pay back the smuggling debts.
Thirty of the irregular arrivals have been arrested under newly enacted immigration laws that allow for the mandatory detention of those suspected to have arrived in Canada via smugglers, Kenney said.
Kenney declined to identify their ethnicity but said the groups of Romanian nationals illegally crossed into Canada between February and October.
Kenney noted that Canada has one of the most generous immigration systems in the world but said it won't tolerate those who abuse it or cheat it to jump the queue.
"We are sending a strong message to those who are thinking of using the services of criminal human smugglers to sneak their way into Canada: Don't do it," Kenney said.
The minister's news conference Wednesday comes the week before he is set to unveil a list of countries from which refugee claimants will receive extra scrutiny. The designated country of origin list is expected to include several European Union countries that the government says are sources of a large number of refugee claims by Roma, known in the English-speaking world as Gypsies.
Roma communities are known for their insularity, and authorities did not make any asylum seekers available for comment.
The funnel points along the Mexican border have shifted. In 2010, most Romanians were apprehended in the Tucson, Arizona, sector; in 2011, it was split between Tucson and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In 2012, the Imperial Valley of Southern California became the favourite crossing site, with 509 Romanian apprehensions there so far this year.
Statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that 384 Romanians were apprehended along the Mexican border in fiscal year 2010, 575 in 2011 and 901 in 2012. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have noticed the spike.
The agents apprehending them know they are dealing with Gypsies, said Lauren Mack, ICE San Diego spokesman. And they are aware the Romanians are headed to Canada.
"We have noticed and are aware of an increase in the number of Roma who are being smuggled into the United States and are concerned about it," she said.
In the October crossing in Stanstead, Nicholas Dostie, the tow truck driver hired to take the California van back to the border, said the men, women and children were carried back in a caravan of Mountie cruisers.
Once at the border, officials said, the Gypsies began the process of applying for asylum.
Though it seems like a long detour to go from Europe to Mexico and across a continent to reach asylum, Csanyi-Robah said she could understand the pull.
"For people that are desperate for something," she said, "it's not a long route for a better life."
Rob Gillies reported from Toronto. With files from The Canadian Press.
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