OTTAWA — Donald Trump's suspension of refugee resettlement doesn't appear to affect the U.S. asylum system, negating any need for Canada to revisit how the two countries handle asylum claims at the border, the federal Immigration Department says.
But immigration advocates say the new U.S. president has signed more than one border-related executive order in recent weeks that has put the asylum system in jeopardy.
They're urging Canadian officials to temporarily suspend the so-called safe third country agreement until everyone can fully understand how all of Trump's orders will affect people seeking protection.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen had already indicated the agreement would remain untouched as Canada monitored the impact of Trump's moves: suspending immigration from seven countries for 90 days and all refugee resettlement for 120 days.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen gets ready to hold a news conference to update Canadians on the possible impacts of recent immigration-related decisions made by President Donald Trump, Jan. 29, 2017. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
A statement from Hussen's department late Wednesday, however, spelled out the government's rationale in the face of pressure from advocates and opposition parliamentarians for a policy response to the U.S. travel ban.
"Our government has no indication that the executive order has any impact on the American asylum system," said the statement from spokesperson Nancy Caron.
Caron said the agreement is focused on how to handle people who show up at either land border to make asylum claims, not the resettled refugees covered by Trump's edict. Even if they were covered, the deal operates independently of any executive orders, she added.
"U.S. compliance with treaty obligations is overseen by an independent judiciary whose decisions are not subject to direction by the U.S. executive order."
One way the immigration order could affect the asylum system is the status of claims by people from the seven listed countries, said Mitch Goldberg, the executive director of the Canadian Association for Refugee Lawyers.
"There is no way the U.S. is a safe third country of asylum."
Trump's order banned people from Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Somalia from immigrating to the U.S. for 90 days. It's unclear whether those already in the U.S. and seeking asylum will have their claims heard, paused or just outright rejected during the suspension period.
Immigration advocates are considering a legal challenge to the validity of the agreement given not just the immigration order, but others signed in recent weeks dealing with immigration enforcement both inside the U.S. and at the border.
The orders call for increased detention and an expansion of the criteria for the expedited removal of undocumented immigrants. Critics say they also put undocumented immigrants at risk for criminal charges.
"There is no way the U.S. is a safe third country of asylum," said Deborah Anker, the director of Harvard law school's immigration and refugee clinical program.
It was difficult to apply for asylum in the U.S. before, but if anyone walked into her clinic seeking to file a claim now, she's not sure what she would counsel them to do, she said.
Fear of showing up at the Canadian border and getting sent back to the U.S. to be indefinitely detained or swiftly deported will just drive asylum seekers underground, said Gloria Nafziger of Amnesty International Canada.
"It plays into the hands of the smugglers," she said.
The current uncertainty is why the Liberal government should simply invoke its right to suspend the safe third country agreement for three months, said Andrew Brouwer, the advocacy co-chair at the refugee lawyers' association.
"Even if they don't feel there is enough here to say we're cancelling the agreement, that's fair, we don't know what exactly how this is going to play out on the ground," he said.
"But there is certainly enough here to indicate that the circumstances in the U.S. are nothing like they were when the agreement was entered into and that really, the most vulnerable within the United States are at risk."