Canada's immigration minister is accusing federal Conservatives of wanting to "militarize the border" to stop asylum seekers from crossing irregularly from the United States.
Ahmed Hussen made the charge at an event in Ottawa Tuesday after he was asked about the number of migrants who have crossed into Quebec over the past year.
"I haven't seen anything from the Conservatives," Hussen said. "They don't have a plan. You know what their plan is? To militarize the border and place a (Canada Border Services Agency) official or an RCMP official every 100 metres.
"We don't have the resources for that kind of half-baked, impractical plan."
Watch: Tories say Liberals have failed to manage asylum seekers
Hussen was referencing how Tories are proposing to close a so-called loophole in the Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the U.S. by having the entire border declared an official point of entry.
According to the pact, which came into effect in 2004, Canada and the U.S. recognize each other as safe places for refugee claimants to seek protection. Under the agreement, people must apply for asylum in the first country where they arrive, unless an immediate family member lives in the other country.
Canada can turn back would-be refugees at the border on the basis that they must instead make claims in the U.S., where they first arrived. However, the pact only applies at official border points, which helps explain why crossings have occurred between checkpoints. The government has been calling people who enter Canada this way "irregular" border crossers.
Those who cross the border irregularly are arrested by the RCMP, but they are entitled under international law to make an asylum claim after a background check. More than 38,000 irregular migrants who originate from places like Haiti, Somalia and El Salvador have arrived in Canada since the beginning of 2017.
'There's an increased number of people on the move'
Hussen touted the Liberal government's outreach efforts to discourage irregular crossings and to dispel myths about Canada's refugee system. He also mentioned the $74 million earmarked to work through backlogs in the processing of claims.
Canada is not "immune" from the effects of increased global migration due to conflict and other issues, he said. "There's an increased number of people on the move, the largest increase since the Second World War."
While Hussen's remark about Tories "militarizing" the border seems like an escalation of rhetoric in an election year, Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc have made similar allegations in the House of Commons.
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During the 2017 Conservative leadership race, top contender Maxime Bernier floated the idea of temporarily deploying troops to the border to stem the flow of migrants.
"We're using the Canadian Forces when we have natural disasters in this country," Bernier told CBC News at the time. "Let's use them on a temporary basis in places where these people are crossing the border."
Bernier later left the Tories to form the populist People's Party of Canada.
Still, Tory immigration critic Michelle Rempel wasted little time responding to Hussen. She took to Twitter to highlight an infamous 2006 Liberal campaign ad that warned then-Conservative leader Stephen Harper wanted "soldiers with guns" on the streets of Canadian cities.
She accused Hussen of the same kind of desperate fear-mongering.
Remember in 2006 when the Liberals were at their most desperate, they put this ad out, which they had to pull? Trudeau's Minister just did the same thing today. "The CPC would militarize the border". This is deseparate, unCanadian, divisive fearmongering. https://t.co/caNSoStqm2— Michelle Rempel (@MichelleRempel) January 22, 2019
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer followed suit with a tweet promising his party will "take back control of Canada's border."
More Liberal desperation. They tried the "soldiers with guns" attack once before. Didn't work so well. Conservatives are the only party offering action to take back control of Canada's border. The Liberals continue to do nothing but deflect and attack! https://t.co/wHX6iVjNh7— Andrew Scheer (@AndrewScheer) January 22, 2019
Rempel later released a statement saying she was "extremely disgusted by the desperate attack" from Hussen.
"Rather than solve the problem they have created, the Liberals are determined to direct attention on anything but their failures to solve this crisis," she said in the release.
"While they choose to fear monger, Canada's Conservatives will continue to put forward pragmatic solutions to the issues that the Trudeau government has created in our immigration system."
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told a House immigration committee in July that the Conservative proposal would present an "enormous enforcement problem that is a practical impossibility" and would only make matters worse.
"If you are declaring (the entire border) a port of entry, it would need to be populated with the necessary border officers to administer all of the responsibilities of the CBSA across a 9,000-kilometre stretch of space, which would involve the hiring of literally thousands of border officers to provide any credible administration of a port of entry that ran for 9,000 kilometres," Goodale said at the time.
In September, Border Security Minister Bill Blair refused to apologize for questioning in the House if Tories would remove infants from their parents and "incarcerate them into cages" to stop asylum seekers from entering Canada irregularly.
Watch the exchange:
The issue is also expected to play heavily in October's federal election, particularly in seat-rich Quebec.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accused Tories of spreading misinformation on Canada's immigration system. Tory Leader Andrew Scheer, meanwhile, has accused Trudeau of labelling anyone who has legitimate concerns as "un-Canadian and intolerant."
With earlier files and files from The Canadian Press