Montreal (CNN) — Pass through the pews of Our Lady of Guadalupe church and you’ll get a glimpse of this country’s newest immigrants.
A man from Mexico arrived here as a tourist, but hopes to study French and find a way to stay.
A family from El Salvador came here from the United States, where they feared officials would deport them.
A Venezuelan family fleeing the rising turmoil in their country says they’re seeking refuge.
A growing number of immigrants from Latin America say they’re looking north. Some say in previous years the United States would have been their first choice. But President Donald Trump’s policies made them reconsider their plans and try their luck in Canada instead.
Experts have words of caution for people considering making the trek. It’s harder than it sounds, they say, to meet government requirements under Canadian asylum laws and have the chance to stay.
Who’s trying to immigrate to Canada? How are US policies influencing them? And what happens once they make it north of the border?
To get a better sense, CNN visited several places that have become hubs for immigrants journeying to Canada. Here is what we found:
Where journeys begin
This red brick building in Buffalo, New York, is more than a mere stopping point.
For many of the people who pass through the gray doors of this former school, it’s the first step on a long journey.
This is a safe house that caters to clientele who are getting ready to cross the US-Canada border.
A wall mural at the entrance features currency from all over the world spelling out the shelter’s name. People from more than 180 countries have stayed here as they wait for appointments with Canadian immigration authorities, says Ulises Leonel, a Salvadoran immigrant who volunteers at the shelter.
Catholic nuns founded Vive, which means “live” in Spanish, in the 1980s. Back then, a wave of people were fleeing wars in Central and South America. Many of them turned to Canada because of US policies at the time.
The shelter can house up to 120 people. Now, it’s at capacity and renting housing for about 100 additional guests nearby.
Vive personnel advise would-be immigrants on the rules for refugees heading to Canada, particularly the Safe Third Country Agreement. That accord requires refugees to seek asylum in the first safe country they arrive in, which means people who’ve already stepped foot in the United States can’t report to an official Canadian border crossing seeking asylum.
There are only a few exceptions, such as having a family member who’s already in Canada legally.
Leonel himself knows how hard it is to make the journey. He tried to get asylum in Canada – and was rejected – twice.
His second denial was in September.
But his 16-year-old son, who traveled to Canada last year as an unaccompanied minor, was allowed to cross the border and is currently making his case.
The last time the father and son saw each other, it was from thousands of feet away.
They both visited Niagara Falls recently.
Leonel stood on the American side, trying to catch a glimpse of his son through binoculars.
“I was very emotional,” he says. “I felt like it was a scene from a movie.”
A road more traveled
For most people, talk of the US border conjures up images of desert landscapes, the Rio Grande or Trump’s oft-touted wall. But on this country road, the scene is entirely different.
There’s neither a fence nor a river. Just a stream of water from melted snow and a small pillar marking the border line.
Roxham Road is a remote street that connects Champlain, New York, with Hemmingford, Quebec.
It’s a place that rarely saw police patrols before. But since February, Canadian officers have been watching closely.
In the first four months of 2017, more than 12,000 people sought asylum in Canada, according to government figures. That’s more than half of the total number officials registered last year.
Since January, police have registered more than 1,000 unauthorized border crossings from the United States into Canada on this street alone.
The majority of people crossing here, officials say, claim to be afraid of deportation from the United States or worried about Trump’s immigration policies.
CNN cameras rolled on a recent spring afternoon as a taxi cab pulled up to the street.
A woman carrying a small suitcase and a purse got out. Staring straight ahead with determination, she ignored warnings in English and French from a Canadian official.
“Stop – don’t cross.”
The woman crossed anyway, even as the officer advised her that she would be arrested.
She told officials she was from Haiti. Within minutes, authorities had taken her into custody and escorted her to a vehicle.
If someone’s criminal background check comes up clean and they’re seeking asylum, authorities will take them to a processing center, according to Enrique Gasse, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Quebec.
There, would-be immigrants will take the first steps in making their case. But experts say there’s no guarantee that they’ll get to stay.
Beginning a new life?
In Hamilton, Ontario, a young couple from El Salvador sits in a classroom, listening attentively. Today’s topic: how to navigate the Canadian immigration system and other aspects of daily life here.
The couple asked to remain anonymous because they fled violence in El Salvador and fear for their family’s safety.
Canada wasn’t their first stop. They entered the United States illegally in 2015. After being released from immigration custody and getting work permits, they were planning to wait for their first immigration court date in 2019.
But after Trump’s inauguration and swift executive orders on immigration, they changed their minds.
“I wasn’t going to wait for Trump to deport us,” the wife told CNN.
So once again, they looked north for refuge.
“When we saw on television that (Canadian Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau says that the doors of Canada are open for us, no matter whether we earn less or not, it didn’t matter to me, all that I wanted was my family’s safety,” the woman said.
Now, as they try to navigate the Canadian immigration system, Carlos Vasquez is their guide.
The founder of the Colombian Refugees Association came to Canada in the 1980s as guerrilla warfare tore apart his country.
Since January, he’s seen an increase in the number of people coming to Canada seeking asylum. And his phone has been ringing more often with calls from Latinos in the United States who want to know more about immigrating to Canada.
He says he often hears frustration on the other end of the phone when he tells people it isn’t that easy.
“They think I don’t want to help them,” he says.
There’s a perception that it’s easy to immigrate to Canada, he says, but the reality is more complicated.
It’s a point Vilma Filici is used to making.
The Toronto-based immigration consultant says people who come to her for help confuse Canada’s reputation as a welcoming country with an open borders policy.
Just like any other country, she says, Canada has strict guidelines for granting asylum requests.
“It’s not just a matter of arriving and saying, ‘I’m afraid,’” she says.
Fearing deportation from the United States isn’t enough to make an asylum case in Canada, she says.
Filici points out that asylum applicants who’ve been living in the United States for a while will likely have an even tougher time convincing Canadian authorities to let them stay.
“The first question will be why didn’t you ask for asylum in the United States?” she says. “The second will be, do you really think that your persecutors are going to remember you?”
Also, for asylum applicants here, time is not on their side.
It’s not like the United States, she says, where cases can take years to begin and even longer to make their way through the backlogged system.
In the past few years, Canada changed its system to give immigrants faster responses on their cases. In less than two months, people applying for asylum will present their case to a panel. Officials typically respond within a month. If the initial request is denied, there’s an appeals process that Filici says won’t last more than six months.
That means unsuccessful applicants only have 30 days to leave the country, since a deportation order goes into effect as soon as officials reach their final decision, according to Filici.
Officials aim, she says, to prevent applicants from claiming they’ve already put down roots in Canada – something that often comes up in lengthy US immigration cases.
A tourist…for now
In the basement of Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Montreal, Bruno Carrasco is meeting new friends and enjoying a meal after Mass. The menu options are a mix of traditional foods from Latin America: tamales, pupusas, empanadas and arroz con pollo.
The 27-year-old Mexican says he came to Canada several weeks ago after years of weighing whether to make the trip.
“At the moment, I’m a tourist. I’m on vacation. I have friends here,” he says.
A recent move by the Canadian government made his decision easier.
In December, Canada ended a 7-year-old policy that had required travel visas for Mexicans visiting the country as tourists.
That policy aimed to curtail the large number of Mexicans requesting asylum. Mexico lobbied hard to change it, and Canada agreed, on one condition: Visas will be required once again if the cases of Mexicans seeking asylum reach a certain number – a figure officials haven’t publicly disclosed.
Currently, asylum applications from Mexicans are well below the numbers officials saw years ago.
By the numbers: Mexicans seeking asylum in Canada
29,143 applied from 2006-2009259 applied in 2016156 applied in the first two months of 2017
Carrasco sees the six months he’s allowed to be in the country without a visa as an opportunity to find a chance to immigrate legally here.
He says he plans to take a French class, study, find a job and then apply for permanent residency.
Living as an undocumented immigrant here, he says, is not an option.
Father Percy Diaz, who leads Mass for the growing Latino community here, says immigrants who don’t follow the rules find it hard to make a living. And in some provinces, he says the children of undocumented immigrants aren’t allowed to study in public schools.
“Wherever you go,” he says, “they will ask for your papers.”
Authorities make an effort to find people who’ve overstayed their visas, he says.
Saul Sanchez found that out the hard way.
After working in Canada with a temporary visa for several months, he decided to skip his flight home to Mexico.
For about a year, he found work under the table and quietly lived in the shadows.
“I felt safe. I didn’t feel persecuted,” he says.
But then one day, immigration authorities knocked at his door. He believes they found him by tracking the money orders he was sending back to Mexico. Now he’s fighting his deportation.
Like so many others, he’s holding out hope that the policies promoted by Prime Minister Trudeau and his liberal government will give him the chance to stay.
CNN en Espanol’s Gustavo Valdes reported from Buffalo, Toronto and Montreal. CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet wrote the story in Atlanta.