MONTREAL — One spring morning, Alfredo Rivas and his wife, who was seven months pregnant, grabbed the small bags containing their remaining belongings and headed north to Canada, a place they’d never seen.
A week earlier, they’d decided to leave New York City amid worries the U.S. president’s promise to crack down on illegal immigration would put them at risk of being deported back to wartorn El Salvador.
It’s a story that has recently become familiar to Canadians as the country has seen a rise in the number of refugee claimants crossing its southern borders — a phenomenon some have linked with rising anti-immigrant rhetoric and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Only, Rivas’ journey didn’t happen in recent months, and the president whose policies he was fleeing was Ronald Reagan, not Trump.
While the scenes playing out at the Canadian border have garnered worldwide attention, northward migration is hardly unprecedented, says an author and historian who has studied the issue.
“There’s a long history of people crossing the border fleeing U.S. policy and seeking refuge in Canada, whether you’re looking at African-Americans fleeing slavery in the 19th century, draft dodgers in the 1960s and ’70s, then refugees from Central America and other countries in the 1980s and ’90s,” John Rosinbum said in a phone interview.
In November 1986, exactly 30 years prior to Trump’s election, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform Control Act, which stated that illegal immigrants who could not prove they had resided in the country for five years could be deported, and employers who hired them could be penalized.
The move sent thousands of would-be refugees heading toward Canada, many of them originally from Central American countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador.
This wave of arrivals caused Ottawa to dramatically shift positions in February 1987 and declare that asylum claimants would not be allowed to enter the country pending their hearing dates.
The process essentially stranded hundreds of refugees, including Rivas and his wife, in communities along the Canada-U.S. border for weeks or months at a time, Rosinbum said.
The small town of Plattsburgh, N.Y., pop. 20,000, unexpectedly found itself hosting an impromptu refugee camp for people originating from more than 50 countries.
Without formal services in place, volunteers quickly jumped in to organize food, shelter and warm winter clothes for the refugees, according to former volunteer Margot Zeglis.
“I think it was a surprise to everybody,” recalled Zeglis, who eventually co-ordinated the volunteer effort.
“The Salvation Army was one of the first places they went but that was bursting at the seams, they would be sleeping under pews and filling the halllways with their small duffels of what their belongings were.”
Eventually, she said, the volunteers became more sophisticated and formed partnerships with social services and various levels of government to organize better housing, food, counselling, translation services and entertainment for the guests.
Despite the kindness of the volunteers, it was a stressful time, Rivas recalls.
“They were small army beds, very small,” said Rivas, adding his wife’s stomach barely fit on one of the cots, which were lined up next to each other in rows.
Rivas says he and his wife were allowed into Canada on April 6, 1987 — the same day his daughter was born.
“They asked us (at the border) if we wanted the baby born in New York or Canada,” he said.
While he chose New York, he said, his wife opted to give birth in Montreal — a decision he now concedes was the right one.
Rivas, now a slim 58-year-old widower with two grown children, said many people who came up through Plattsburgh in 1987 are still friends.
On a recent Sunday afternoon in Montreal, several of them met up for a backyard barbecue hosted by their friend Fredy Cruz, a fellow Salvadoran, to reminisce and eat plates of pupusas, or thick tortillas, filled with meat and cheese.
Rivas’ friend, Nelson Gonzalez, who arrived at the lunch with Rivas, said he sees similarities between the run on the border in the late ’80s and the current situation under Trump.
“It’s the same, always the same thing,” he said. “They’re scaring people to run from there. But it’s just a lot of talk.”
Rivas, Cruz and Gonzalez, who all came to Canada in the same year, are now part of a group that helps raise funds to send money back to El Salvador.
“We came here with nothing, just a small bag,” said Rivas, sitting at a picnic table in Cruz’s garage. “And now, we don’t have much, but we have something.”