Death of pregnant Mexican migrant exposes racist border policies and deadly double standards

“Every migration expert I have ever spoken to warned that closing Roxham Road would create jobs for human smugglers, one of whom — hired to guide Ana Karen Vasquez-Flores by text message as she walked alone in the woods across the U.S./Canadian border — is now facing extradition from Canada to the U.S.”

This past Sunday, a small vigil was held in Montreal for Ana Karen Vasquez-Flores, a Mexican migrant who died a month ago while trying to cross the U.S. border on foot from Canada. 

I don’t know much about Ana Karen, other than that her body was found in the Great Chazy River near Champlain, NY, on Dec. 14, two days after her husband notified border patrol that she never emerged from the woods.

According to the vigil’s organizers, she was five months pregnant.

The peaceful protest and commemoration was organized by Solidarity Across Borders and the Caring for Social Justice Collective to denounce what they referred to as Canadian and American “racist immigration laws and deadly border policies” — policies that often make it so difficult for people from certain countries to migrate and move across borders that they result in needless deaths. The organizers told CityNews Montreal that they didn’t want these deaths “normalized.”

Closing Roxham Road increased dangers

When Roxham Road was officially closed in March of 2023, refugee advocates cautioned governments that people would still continue crossing, but they would do so in “a much more secretive, more dangerous fashion.”  

Every migration expert I have ever spoken to warned that closing Roxham Road would incentivize bad-faith actors and create jobs for human smugglers — what migration experts refer to as the “black market in human movement” — most likely increasing the dangers for those attempting to bypass deterrent methods. Most asylum seekers come through official channels and by air, so it’s usually the ones with very few options and resources who take such dangerous chances. 

Since the closure of Roxham Road, many migrants who crossed numerous countries (in this woman’s case, 12) and faced harsh ordeals to make it here have found themselves stranded in the U.S., unable to enter Canada and join family, with no resources. This policy paper explains well why legal migration is practically impossible for some people due to many western governments’ restrictive criteria that render legal paths of migration only available in the most extreme circumstances. Even when migrants make it to Canada, they are often treated as criminals, incarcerated in provincial jails, contrary to international law. Desperate people sometimes put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers, and for some that has meant death, including last year when a total of eight bodies (members of two families) were recovered from the waters in the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne. 

In Ana Karen’s case, a Colombian man living in Quebec is now facing extradition from Canada to the United States on human smuggling charges. The Canadian Press reports that “American authorities allege Jhader Augusto Uribe-Tobar charged the woman and her husband $2,500 U.S. to guide her by text message as she walked alone across the border.” Harsher restrictions to enter the U.S. from Mexico (a recent incident where Border Patrol agents say they were prevented by Texas National Guard troops, under the direction of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, from helping a migrant woman and her two young children, resulted in all three of them drowning) have caused many Mexicans to fly into Canada and then attempt the dangerous crossing into the U.S. 

In many ways, Ana Karen’s death — the circumstances, the tragic outcome, the timing right before Christmas — reminded me of the sad case of 44-year-old Fritznel Richard, an asylum seeker from Haiti who was also trying to reunite with his family and froze to death in the St-Bernard-de-Lacolle woods near a crossing point between Canada and the U.S. in December of 2022. 

Then, like now, a human being doing nothing more than trying to be with their family trusted a human smuggler to cross into the U.S. by foot outside regular ports of entry and tragically paid with their life. 

Not all migrants treated the same

I’m currently in Mexico’s Yucatan region on a much-needed vacation. Quintana Roo, like Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende and other gorgeous, sun-kissed spots in this beautiful country, are bursting at the seams with foreigners who are either here for a short vacation or a longer stay. There are Facebook groups of ex-pats exchanging information about what to do, where to go, what the best deals in dental work and boat excursions are. Playa del Carmen has an entire bar, Los Tabernacos, catering to Quebecers alone. I hear French and English spoken routinely. 

Ex-pats (a fancy word almost exclusively used for western white migrants going abroad to work or retire) are everywhere. The wealthier among them have snatched up luxury condos and villas, and more buildings are going up by the minute. Every few blocks, there seems to be an Oficina de Ventas catering to newcomers, many of whom cluelessly complain about the inflation and gentrification they’re contributing to. 

Digital nomads (another fancy term reserved for those coming from western countries), a younger group of laptop-toting Canadians, Europeans and Americans who can afford to work from anywhere, are also easy to spot. Enter any overpriced (by Mexican standards) café with a Wi-Fi connection and there they are, dressed casually, sipping on fresh juice, tapping away. Sometimes they write blogs about how cool it is to be paid in Euros or U.S. dollars while living in a country whose currency is pesos and has a lower cost of living.

The double standards that kill

One thing I’ve noticed on my many walks around town are the ubiquitous signs offering professional advice on how to emigrate here. How to attain permanent or temporary residency. A driver’s licence. A work visa. 

Every time I see these signs, a small part of me gets deeply annoyed — and not because I don’t believe people shouldn’t have the right to move around in this world and perhaps relocate to a place that they feel would make them happier or offer them more opportunities. I get angry because that opportunity is offered effortlessly only to some. 

Mexicans like Ana Karen and her husband, who also crossed borders to come to Canada or the U.S. for a better life and more work opportunities, aren’t referred to as “ex-pats,” but “migrants,” even though they’re doing the exact same thing — usually in lower-paying jobs and far worse working conditions. “In the lexicon of human migration, there are still hierarchical words, created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else,” writes Mawuna Remarque Koutonin for The Guardian, and she couldn’t be more right. The language we use to define the people who move around on this planet is not accidental. There is a pejorative weight attached to “migrant” that “ex-pat” isn’t tainted with. The latter word positively brims with happy-go-lucky lightness and western privilege. The word “migrant” doesn’t receive that kind of treatment. 

“The death of Ana Karen Vasquez-Flores near the Canadian/American border on December 14th is a devastating reminder,” reads the statement on X by Solidarity Across Borders, the Montreal-based migrant justice network, comprised of migrants and allies, that organized the vigil in Parc Ex. “Government attempts to prevent people from crossing borders do not stop them from travelling but only force them to take more dangerous routes.”

I understand that people have differing opinions on irregular migration — opinions that may range from “Open Borders” to “Build more walls.” I suspect that most people are somewhere in the middle, cautiously open to human migration but with stringent rules, qualifiers and deterrents that often make those with no money and no access to legal resources choose unsafe routes. 

Ana Karen was only 33 years old and five months pregnant. She posed no threat to anyone, had committed no crime. She simply wanted to safely reunite with her husband, start her family and have a better life. Instead, she died alone and afraid. 

Regardless of your feelings about irregular migration, I know of few people who would be comfortable with the idea that a young woman at the start of her life deserved to die in this dreadful way. ■

Death of pregnant Mexican migrant exposes racist border policies and deadly double standards

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.