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Over the border: the US, Canada and asylum seekers


Over the border: the US, Canada and asylum seekers

A sign sign marks the border between Canada and the U.S. March 22, 2006 near Beecher Falls, Vermont. As American politicians continue to debate immigration reform Border Patrol agents work the northern border to prevent asylum seekers entering.


The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has intercepted more than 15,000 asylum seekers who have illegally entered the country from the US in 2017, placing the governance of the Canada-US border firmly beneath the microscope.


– The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the US sets the parameters for people crossing the Canada-US land border and attempting to access the refugee system
– Quebec is dealing with high numbers of Haitian refugees following the Department of Homeland Security’s warning that Haitians with protection status have until January 22, 2018 to “make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States”
– The US administration’s tough stance on migrants and unwillingness to compromise will further strain US-Canada ties
– The migrant flow is stretching Canadian resources and increasing domestic pressure on Ottawa to defend border security

Migrants have faced a harsh and confronting reality in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, with many of those who fled persecution to reach the US now dreading deportation from their adopted country. Rhetoric concerning refugees has contributed to an uneasy atmosphere for those living in the US under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and created an unprecedented logistical nightmare for Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.


The sharp focus on immigration and border control during the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency has led to unintended consequences in Canada. A message—in the form of a simple tweet—posted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on January 28, 2017 flagged the philosophical differences between the two heads of government: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada”. The dichotomy came as no surprise but few could have anticipated the scale of the influx of migrants at the border, nor the response to the 140-character statement.

Whether Trudeau’s compassionate stance can effectively manifest itself in policy form is not yet clear. Canada’s first-term prime minister must remain responsive to public sentiments in attempting to execute his reforms for refugees, after fresh poll results showed that the country is divided on the openness of its border. The survey—a joint project by Nanos Research and The Globe and Mail—revealed that 37% of Canadians believe asylum seekers entering from the US should be welcomed, with 37% in favour of closed borders and 26% unsure.


An arduous journey made difficult for asylum seekers by winter.
Photo: Christinne Muschi/Reuters

The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between Canada and the US has been in operation for more than a decade. It was introduced to prevent prospective refugees from double-dipping or “shopping” for the best available asylum system. In principle and in practice, STCA denies claimants the option to hop between Canada and the US, with legal status instead dictated by their first destination. Exceptions exist to cater for family ties or other individual circumstances, but STCA has played a notable role in both reinforcing borders and reducing administrative and fiscal burdens.

STCA’s role in steering the outcomes of asylum claimants only stretches so far. It kicks into gear if and when Canadian authorities are processing cases at official border points. In total, the RCMP apprehended 2,464 asylum seekers at unauthorised points of entry in 2016—many in the period immediately prior to and following the US election. The overwhelming majority of the movement thus far in 2017 (approximately 13,600 people) has flowed through a single unofficial crossing point at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec.

To date, Trudeau’s handling of asylum seekers and refugees has garnered a sobering response in the public domain. A report released by the Angus Reid Institute in October highlighted that 51% of Canadians disapprove of the Trudeau government’s raised immigration thresholds and increased refugee intakes, with the largest group (32%) of respondents strongly disapproving.

The issue is yet to torpedo Trudeau’s personal popularity or the legitimacy of his government—he is still viewed favourably, particularly in Quebec (57%). But the report stated: “Canadians are approaching the two-year anniversary of the 2015 election with a far less enthusiastic, even jaundiced eye on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government”. This cautious, sensitive relationship between the Canadian constituency and its leader is symbolic of the complexity of the issue, and a stark reminder that Trudeau’s honeymoon period in office is over.


The US border station along the Canadian-US border in Franklin, Vermont
Photo: Toby Talbot/AP

The exponential increase in asylum seeker traffic across the border is a product of the policy levers pulled in the two countries this year. Trump’s agenda on border control—delivering a stiff-arm to migrants and refugees via changes to TPS, a travel ban and most recently the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—poses considerable challenges for Canada. STCA has, in many ways, safeguarded Canada’s right to govern its border and provided the legislative ammunition to return refugees to the US. If the policy trends of 2017 are anything to go by, its viability and usefulness may be undermined.

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Trump’s decision to dump DACA and defer pressure to Congress is broadly unpopular—only 15% of voters favour deporting the undocumented immigrants, according to Politico. The official unwinding of the program will commence on March 5, 2018, with anyone carrying an expired permit under threat of deportation. Up to 800,000 previously protected migrants could be left in limbo. The first returns on those eligible under DACA for temporary renewals will do little to sooth the tension: upwards of 20,000 recipients did not file paperwork prior to the October 5 cut-off. The timeline is pivotal for Canada’s grasp of its ballooning border traffic.

Trudeau’s overhaul of refugee resettlement and immigration (with an intake of 40,000 refugees in 2017) does not include any allowance for the cascade flowing from the US. STCA’s status as a safety net for policymakers is under question by analysts, officials, and voters alike. Loopholes have been leveraged, leaving a narrow avenue for a triumph of policy in an even more precarious place. The relative calm offered by STCA has been replaced by uncertainty about the ratio of asylum seekers in North America, and could strain relations.

Even if only a tiny proportion of vulnerable TPS and DACA cases opt to venture north of the border, Canada’s current headache will descend further into chaos. Inland movement is no longer assured of being thwarted by the restrictions of STCA. At current rates, the Trudeau government will have to devote greater resources to the RCMP, ensuring that it remains adaptive and can keep pace with the escalating problem. But with the Liberal Party’s use of the public purse and struggle to keep to its promise of “modest deficits” already attracting scrutiny, there is not much scope to overcommit.

Security concerns will further drive Ottawa into a corner. A terror incident in Edmonton, Alberta, involving a Somali refugee at the beginning of October is illustrative of how quickly the border control narrative can intensify in public discourse. The tenor of Trudeau’s Twitter statement in January is often employed as a backdrop to such events. Nursing its place as a peacekeeper and desirable outlet for refugees, his government risks a perception of failing to protect borders and deliver domestic security.

How Trudeau juggles public concern, policy instruments, and geopolitical pressures in the management of this issue looms as a harbinger for electoral success—or failure.

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