By Allison Lampert and Anna Mehler Paperny
HEMMINGFORD, Quebec (Reuters) - Canadian police said on Monday they have bolstered their presence at the Quebec border and border authorities have created a temporary refugee center to process a growing number of asylum seekers crossing from the United States.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said at a news conference that it has converted an unused basement into a refugee claimant processing center. Both the border agency and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are reassigning staff from other locations in the province, as needed, to accommodate rising demand.
The CBSA said the number of people making refugee claims at Quebec-U.S. border crossings more than doubled between 2015 and 2016. Last month 452 people made claims compared to 137 in January 2016, the agency said.
The influx is straining police, federal government and community resources from the prairie province of Manitoba, where people arrive frostbitten from hours walking in freezing conditions, to Quebec, where cabs drop asylum-seekers off meters away from the Quebec-U.S.border, the border agency said.
A Reuters reporter on Monday saw RCMP officers take in for questioning a family of four - two men, a woman, and a baby in a carseat - who had walked across the snowy gully dividing Roxham Road in Champlain, New York, from Chemin Roxham in Hemmingford, Quebec.
"Please explain to her that she's in Canada," one Canadian officer told another officer.
Police take people crossing the border in for questioning at the border agency's office in Lacolle, Quebec, which is the province's biggest and busiest border crossing. Police identify them and ensure they are not a threat or carrying contraband.
They are then transferred to the CBSA for fingerprinting and further questions. If anyone is deemed a threat or flight risk, they are detained. If not, they can file refugee claims and live in Canada while they wait for a decision
"It's touching, and we are not insensitive to that," Bryan Byrne, the RCMP's Champlain Detachment Commander, told reporters near the border. "Some of these people had a long journey. Some are not dressed for the climate here."
Asylum-seekers cross illegally because Canada's policy under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement is to turn back refugees if they make claims at border crossings. But as U.S. President Donald Trump cracks down on illegal immigrants, Amnesty International and refugee advocacy groups are pressuring the Canadian government to abandon the agreement, arguing the United States is no safe haven.
On Monday the city of Montreal, Quebec voted to declare itself a "sanctuary city," making it the fourth city in Canada to protect illegal immigrants and to provide services to them.
(Writing by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; editing by Diane Craft)