The mayors of three Ontario cities are calling on the federal government to help them support asylum seekers being transferred to their communities after entering the country through an unofficial border crossing in Quebec.

The leaders of Niagara Falls, Cornwall and Windsor say local supports are being stretched to capacity as migrants who crossed into Canada via Roxham Road arrive in increasing numbers. In addition to federal funding, they're seeking clarity from Ottawa on what lies ahead.

"We need to know the plan," Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said in an interview. "Don't just tell us the plan, let's develop it together."

Roxham Road is an irregular border crossing on a country road stretching from New York state to Quebec, about 50 kilometres south of Montreal. In 2021, 4,246 migrants entered Canada via Roxham Road, with that number jumping to nearly 40,000 last year, the federal government has said.

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada said the government began transferring asylum claimants to various cities in Ontario in June last year, after Quebec voiced concerns the migrants were placing pressure on publicly funded services and accommodation.

The department said 7,131 people have been transferred to Ontario communities so far – 4,313 to Niagara Falls, 1,396 to Cornwall, 720 to Windsor and 702 to Ottawa.

"IRCC is now in the process of working with other provinces and municipalities to identify new destinations that have the capacity to accommodate asylum seekers," spokesman Remi Lariviere said, noting that Atlantic provinces have received a few dozen asylum seekers.

Diodati said the federal government initially approached his city last summer and said 87 hotel rooms were needed for asylum seekers.

"They didn't want this to be public so we thought that's fine, we'll do our part. Then it quickly went to 300, then 687, 2,000, and it's gotten much bigger," he said.

Ontario mayors seek help, clarity from Ottawa to support #RoxhamRoad #AsylumSeekers. #CDNPoli #IRCC

The city now needs Ottawa to provide guidance on how the community can support the growing number of asylum seekers, Diodati said.

Niagara Falls has also asked Ottawa for $5 million to support local food banks and legal aid groups, the mayor said.

In Cornwall, Mayor Justin Towndale is seeking similar support from the federal government.

He said his eastern Ontario city has been doing "the Canadian thing" and supporting the migrants but needs clarity on long-term plans.

"In this case, the initial communication wasn't there," Towndale said in a phone interview. "We were having meetings with IRCC on a regular basis but they weren't really giving us updates to their plan."

Cornwall has brought on more staff to support asylum seekers who have arrived, Towndale said, and the city is asking the federal government for $2 million to fund those extra city employees.

There are also concerns about the effects of having many hotel rooms in the city booked up by the federal government to house the asylum seekers, Towndale said. Cornwall recently lost two conferences because organizers couldn't find enough hotel rooms, he noted, and future sporting events hosted in the city could face similar issues.

In Niagara Falls, Diodati said there are concerns about fewer hotel rooms being available for tourists as summer approaches.

"Tourists fan out, they go to the restaurants, the attractions, the golf courses, the wineries," he said. "There's a lot of mom-and-pop operators in Niagara Falls that count on that rubber tire and the overnight traffic to visit the city."

Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, criticized the suggestion that having migrants take up hotel rooms would hit tourism operations and other businesses hard.

"There's a lot of hysteria that's been generated," he said. "Part of this is the fact that these are poor, racialized Black, brown people who are walking in the downtowns of these tourist centres."

Drew Dilkens, the mayor of Windsor, said his city has been acting on the Canadian principle "to help people who need help."

"But at the end of the day, we have to find a pathway to do this in a sensible way, in a smart way," he said. "The city is feeling the strain."

Dilkens said, however, that having asylum seekers choose to settle in Windsor would be a benefit for the city.

"We may be able to find people who are skilled and want to work and that would be great for our local economy," he said.

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada said Canada is continuing to work with the U.S. on strengthening the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The agreement prevents people who come to Canada from the U.S. via official land border crossings from claiming asylum in Canada. But if asylum seekers cross through unofficial border crossings, such as Roxham Road, they avoid the application of the agreement and can proceed with a claim for asylum.

The Ontario mayors say they are expecting more guidance from the federal government in the coming weeks, after U.S. President Joe Biden makes a visit to Canada this month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2023.

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