Canada Increasingly a Gateway for Undocumented Polish Immigrants Entering the U.S.

(Photo: -Kenzie-/flickr)

The second in a two-part series.

NEW YORK – The last few years have seen an increase in Poles entering the U.S. illegally from Canada. This comes at a time when a growing number of undocumented Polish immigrants are leaving the U.S.  The faltering U.S. economy and Poland’s recent membership in the European Union – which allows Poles to works legally in many European countries – has enticed them to try their luck on the other side of the Atlantic.

The rise in illegal entries from Canada can be traced back to March 2008 when Canada lifted visa requirements for travelers from Poland.   Some see it as an opportunity to try to work their way into the U.S. yet one more time.  Many are desperate to return despite the weak economy and strong anti-immigrant sentiment, said people familiar with the issue.

Most of those who decide to cross from Canada have been denied a U.S. visa or were previously deported from the U.S. Many still have family and friends on the American side, others have property and belongings left behind after they were deported.

For Jarek (not his real name) the main reason to risk an illegal crossing was work. “I’m coming from a poor region of Poland where salaries are extremely low. I don’t even know how people survive being paid that little,” he said,.

Jarek previously lived in the U.S. for several years after overstaying his visa. All that time he kept sending money to his wife and children who stayed in Poland. “Back then, even though I was undocumented, I had a very good job in construction. I was able to make really good money and my boss valued my work. But after a few years I couldn’t stand being so far away from my family any longer. I was depressed, so I went back to Poland. It was my own choice to get a one way ticket.”

Jarek lived in Poland for 2 years. During that time he considered immigrating to another European Union country. “But I didn’t have any connections there. While in the U.S, after so many years there, I knew that if I come back I’ll have a job the next day.” Last summer he decided to try to return.

His decision was not unique.  “Poles have been crossing the Canadian border illegally for many years but the “traffic” definitely intensified since Canada lifted visa requirements for Poland, making it easy for its citizens to enter the country,” said Jerzy Sokol, an immigration attorney who serves Poles in the New York area.

“Another factor that makes Poles choose the Canadian border is intensified security over the Mexican border,” Sokol added.  In recent months Sokol has been working with a couple of clients who were caught by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents in upstate New York.

It’s impossible to determine the exact numbers of Poles crossing the border.  But consul Piotr Janicki of the legal section at the Polish Consulate General in New York claims it’s “a seasonal phenomenon.”

“People usually don’t cross in winter. They don’t want to struggle through Canadian forests in the snow. In summer it’s much easier.”  Janicki said he had noticed the problem in the summer of 2008 and since then it has recurred every year.

“In the summer months I start receiving notifications from Border Patrol about the arrests of Polish citizens, usually a few every month. Then in winter it’s quiet.”  In June this year he received 4 such notifications.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol statistics obtained by Feet In Two Worlds confirmed that the number of Poles apprehended while crossing the northern border has recently increased.  In the first half of this year the Border Patrol stopped 50 Poles along the northern border, most of them in New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. In 2008 there were 63 such cases. For comparison, in 2007, before Canada’s decision to waive visas for Poles, 31 Poles were apprehended, in 2006, the number was 37.

Some Poles, use accurate maps try to cross by themselves. Others enlist the help of organized groups. “It seems to me that some people living along the border turn smuggling into their way of living,” said Jarek who didn’t have any trouble finding people who offered to take him across the border. He claims some groups were run by Poles, others by Russians, Canadians as well as Native Americans.

“Some people cross on foot, others decide to go by boats. Some allegedly look for shallows in the Saint Lawrence River and try to cross there,” he said.  He and his “guide” crossed on foot. A car was waiting for him at a previously arranged location on the American side.

According to people familiar with the issue, smugglers charge anywhere between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on whether they are simply helping people cross the border or delivering them somewhere to be picked up by family members or friends. There is no guarantee of success.  The car Jarek was riding in was soon stopped on the New York State Thruway.

“Once they realized I had no papers, I was immediately taken into custody,” Jarek recalls.

“Border Patrol agents can stop anybody that they see in between the ports of entry. They also monitor areas that have direct egress from the border as well as anything that has a nexus to the border, like transportation hubs, bus and train stations,” said Steven Cribby, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. “Agents have authority throughout the country so there is no limit on where they can and can’t be.”

Jarek paid the smugglers $4 000. But he claims it cost him much more, and the real price did not come out of his wallet. “It was so much stress and humiliation. The uncertainty of what’s going to happen with me was the worst. Being in jail is an awful experience, too.  I would advise anybody who considers doing it not to.”

According to Jerzy Sokol, getting caught in the Northern District of New York may result in more than deportation proceedings. “It happens that the district attorney there also charges people for illegal entry with criminal charges. This is rarely practiced in other states. As a consequence, they have to pay a fine and are sent to jail where they usually spend at least 20 to 30 days. Only then they are being transferred back to Immigration.”

Jarek was detained for almost 5 months. Eventually his friends managed to post bail. Since then he has been living in New York. “My deportation case is on. I’m just waiting to see what’s going to happen. In the meantime I work in construction trying to send as much money home as possible.”

This article is based on a story Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska originally wrote for Nowy Dziennik/Polish Daily News.

AboutEwa Kern-Jedrychowska
Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, and has lived in Queens, NY, since 2001. A former Feet in 2 Worlds reporter, Ewa now works as a staff reporter for covering Queens. She was formerly a reporter for Nowy Dzienik/The Polish Daily News, where she covered stories about Polish immigrants in the U.S.