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Eastern Ont. mayor wants more help from feds to manage influx of asylum seekers, supports STCA renegotiation

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As the federal government looks to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., an eastern Ontario mayor says his city needs more help from Ottawa to deal with the influx of asylum seekers arriving through irregular crossings like Roxham Road.

Cornwall Ont. mayor Justin Towndale tells CTV National News Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Omar Sachedina his city is "not anti-immigration" and wants to help asylum seekers. However, for a city of under 50,000 people, he says local services are being stretched to capacity.

"Our major concerns and challenges relate to the services we need to provide and are expected to provide in addition to the services we provide to our residents on an ongoing basis," the eastern Ontario mayor said on Thursday.

The federal government has sent 900 migrants to Cornwall, who are being housed in hotels in the city. As migrants get bused into Cornwall, the burden of administering social services has fallen to the municipality.

Towndale says the city's Human Services Department has had to bring back retirees in order to fill the gaps. In addition, the city is also losing revenue from tourism taxes, given that housing migrants has taken up half of the city's hotel room inventory.

"Eventually we're going to reach our limit in terms of resources and tap out. So we're asking for help in that regard and … ongoing sustainable funding that can help us cover our costs," he said.

Many of these migrants crossed into Canada from the U.S. and arrived in Quebec through Roxham Road, an unofficial border crossing between Quebec and New York. But the feds began sending migrants to Ontario cities like Cornwall, Windsor and Niagara Falls after concerns from the Quebec government that the province was seeing a disproportionate number of asylum seekers, strained its resources.

Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, migrants must apply for asylum in the first country they set foot in. Canada can turn back asylum seekers coming from the U.S. under the agreement, but the agreement only applies to official border crossings, allowing for migrants to claim asylum after irregularly crossing through Roxham Road.

Maria, an asylum seeker from Angola who didn't want her last name to be published, has been in Cornwall since January—she came to Canada through Roxham Road. After being denied asylum in the U.S., she says she's hoping for a better life for her children in Canada.

"I'm really worried about what is going to happen to me. I have kids, and I look young, but I'm not that young. And I need a place to stay to raise my kids and in peace," she told CTV National News.

Towndale also wants to see better communication from the feds. Before a busload of migrants arrives in Cornwall, he says the city typically only gets a few hours of advance notice.

"It does make it difficult for us because when folks arrive here, we don't know what kind of services they need. And that can be everything from, you know, the language they speak, whether they're in medical distress," he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden touched down in Ottawa on Thursday evening and is set to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sources from The Canadian Press say Trudeau and Biden could finalize an agreement to expand the Safe Third Country Agreement and turn back migrants who cross at Roxham Road and other unofficial border crossings. Towndale agrees the agreement "needs to be certainly revisited."

"At the end of the day, it's asylum claimants that are going to suffer the most because the system is broken because it's not working. So I think we need to find a permanent ongoing solution for this," he said.  

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