MASSENA — Those who know Steven Nadeau, a restaurant owner in this town near the Canadian border, like to joke that his place is internationally renowned. A decade ago, the crispy wings and deep dish pizza were so popular among his northern neighbors that he bought a second cash box for Canadian dollars.
But these days, the tin box sits empty, and the restaurant, Trombino’s, is struggling to stay open. Nadeau counts himself lucky, though — down the road, an eerie stillness has enveloped a mall where most of the stores closed after Canadians stopped coming to shop.
“I always assumed we’ll get through the tough periods, but it has been looking grim,” Nadeau said. “I remember when Massena was the economic engine of the entire county. Now it’s a shadow of what it used to be.”
In this stretch along New York’s northern edge, Canadian buyers once offered a lifeline to small businesses as the local population declined, generating more than a third of the economy in Massena and more than half in the nearby town of Malone, according to their chambers of commerce.
But since 2014, the number of passenger vehicles traveling through the Massena border crossing has dropped by almost a quarter, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
While the falling value of the Canadian dollar has hastened the decline, shopkeepers and local officials also point to another culprit: tighter federal immigration enforcement over the past two years.
Those efforts largely have been aimed at the southern border, but crossing between the United States and Canada has also become more cumbersome, they said.
“We need the Canadians to be able to cross freely and without harassment,” said Mary Scarf, president of the Malone Chamber of Commerce. “They are being treated like criminals, not like the interdependent friends and trading partners that we have always been.”
Enforcement along the northern border has drawn attention in both countries. Last year, the Canadian government criticized the more aggressive efforts by Customs and Border Protection agents off the coast of Maine; earlier this year, the transfer of U.S. border agents from the north to the south stirred a bipartisan outcry from U.S. lawmakers who feared it would worsen wait times at crossings in northern states.
The northern border is the longest land boundary between two countries in the world, with about 400,000 people and over $1.6 billion in goods crossing through it daily. Customs and Border Protection officials disputed claims that it has gotten tougher to travel across it.
“As far as our enforcement posture, nothing has changed,” said Aaron Bowker, a supervisory Customs and Border Protection officer in Buffalo.
In most populated U.S. areas near the border, which generally cater to vacationers or benefit from proximity to large Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, the biggest complaints about immigration enforcement have been delays for tourists and more complicated visa processes for businesses.
But the economic stability of some small border towns in upstate New York has hinged on luring a steady stream of Canadians to their Main Street businesses.
Decades ago, the area around Massena and Malone was a booming industrial belt home to companies such as Reynolds and General Motors. By the time GM closed its doors in Massena in 2009, the region had deteriorated into a string of struggling small towns, home to an aging population with little spendable income.
Just across the Canadian border is Cornwall, a growing manufacturing city with a population of about 50,000. Those consumers once made regular trips to Massena and Malone to shop in U.S. grocery stores, pick up Amazon packages that would ship only within the United States and eat the chicken wings at Trombino’s.
“I could get food for my kids that we didn’t have here,” said Alyssa Baird Payette, 36, a mother of two who lives in Cornwall. “The clothing stores there always had more options.”
The mall that now sits nearly empty had been constructed with Canadian shoppers in mind, said Jim Murphy, the executive director of the Business Development Corp. in Massena.
But as the value of the Canadian dollar began to fall in 2013, U.S. goods became more expensive for Canadians, and Baird Payette — like many of her neighbors — visited the United States less frequently, she said.
Then stories began spreading in the past two years of Canadians who were stopped at the border for hours for seemingly innocuous reasons such as carrying produce or misstating their reason for visiting. Many stopped coming altogether.
“I think I’ve gone once in the last year. It’s just not worth it anymore,” said Katie Digirolomo, 35, who said her husband had been repeatedly stopped when he tried to go to a casino across the border.
Those anecdotes of everyday inconvenience joined a series of high-profile incidents at the northern border, which have spread among Canadians like cautionary tales.
In July last year, a Canadian yarn vendor traveling to a knitting festival in Maryland said she lost $25,000 in fees after border patrol officers told her she had received the wrong visa and turned her away.
A month later, Canadian fishermen reported that border patrol agents were harassing them off the coast of Maine, provoking a show of force from the Canadian Coast Guard.
“It’s behavioral economics. When people hear of delays along the northern border, they adjust their economic behavior to avoid cross-border movement,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat representing western New York, which is home to the Peace Bridge, one of the busiest northern border crossings.
Voters in the counties around Massena and Malone lean conservative, but their opinions on the national debate over immigration policy often diverge from their views of freer movement across the northern border.
“I think that people in this area see the southern border as more of a threat for bringing in criminals. It’s a more dangerous border,” said Steven O’Shaughnessy, the town supervisor of Massena, who has lived in the town for 30 years. “But up here it’s more like one big neighborhood.”
Leaders in Massena are trying to address the economic downturn by formalizing ties between their town, Cornwall and a Mohawk reservation that straddles the border. They established the Tri-Chamber Alliance in 2017 to encourage residents to travel between the two countries and the reservation for events like pub nights and festivals.
The nascent effort draws on the model of cities with more established commercial ties to Canada. In nearby Plattsburgh, local leaders successfully marketed Clinton County to companies from neighboring Montreal, convincing them to set up subsidiaries on their side of the border. Canadian-based companies now employ 15% of the county’s residents, according to the North Country Chamber of Commerce.
“Most rural Rust Belt America towns have had a lot of trouble, but we’ve maintained our population solely because of our relationship with Canada,” said Colin L. Read, the mayor of Plattsburgh.
But for small business owners in Massena and Malone, efforts to lure large Canadian companies or resolve issues at the border may come too late. In Malone, five businesses have closed in the last six months alone, Scharf said.
One recent morning in Malone at Nancy’s Cafe, which has a countertop lined with fresh-baked berry pies and a seemingly endless supply of coffee, only two tables were occupied. The cafe’s owner, Nancy Davis, said that just two or three years ago, half her customers were Canadian.
“They kept us busy, especially Saturday mornings. Now half those customers aren’t coming,” Davis said. “What does that mean for our future? I don’t know.”