SURREY, B.C. — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says the prime minister damaged the integrity of Canada's immigration system when he tweeted two years ago that Canadians will welcome all those fleeing persecution, terror and war.
"In terms of illegal immigration, we have seen this problem grow for the past few years. We all remember Justin Trudeau's famous tweet where he couldn't resist jumping in on Twitter and tweeting out all are welcome," Scheer said Friday at a town hall in suburban Vancouver held by the Surrey Board of Trade.
"Well, people have taken him up on his word. The problem is that that damages the integrity of our immigration system and people who are trying to come to Canada the right way are now having to wait longer," he said to applause from members of the audience.
In January 2017, Trudeau posted on Twitter: "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada."
He made the post shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning entry of citizens from seven countries with majority-Muslim populations for 90 days.
The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada says 34,854 refugee claims were made by irregular border crossers between February 2017 and September 2018 and of those 3,142 — or nine per cent — were accepted. Some 2,429 were denied and 28,314 are pending. It says there has been an "influx" of irregular border crossers.
Trudeau recently warned people to be wary of fear-mongering about immigration, suggesting the issue will be a hot-button topic during the federal election campaign this fall.
Scheer said he has met people who spent years in a refugee camp waiting to enter Canada and don't understand why someone can enter through upstate New York.
The parliamentary budget officer recently reported that the influx of asylum seekers at the border is on course to cost Ottawa more than $1 billion, he added.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan has criticized the Conservatives and Liberal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen for using the word illegal to describe people crossing the U.S. border seeking asylum. Hussen said he was using the word to describe the act of crossing the border outside of a normal point of entry, but he had never described asylum seekers themselves as "illegal."
Asked by a reporter about his use of the word illegal, Scheer said there's a sign at the border that says it's illegal to cross into Canada outside of regular checkpoints.
He said when he talks to new Canadians, they express frustration at how long it took them to be allowed into the country compared with people crossing the U.S. border.
"To see a government that allows people to come and jump the queue and skip the line, that frustrates them," Scheer said.
It's going to be a wedge issue and it's going to place the Conservatives and the People's Party on one side and the Liberals and the NDP on the other side.Hamish Telford, University of the Fraser Valley political scientist
The Conservatives were probably planning to highlight immigration policies in the election, but the new People's Party of Canada led by former Tory MP Maxime Bernier is likely causing them to double down on the issue, said political scientist Hamish Telford of the University of the Fraser Valley.
"It's going to be a wedge issue and it's going to place the Conservatives and the People's Party on one side and the Liberals and the NDP on the other side," Telford said in an interview.
Asked whether the People's Party is pushing him farther right on immigration, Scheer replied: "It's not about left or right on this issue. It's about what's right for Canada. I'm going to continue standing up for principles and not be worried about the politics of it."
Bernier's party has promised to reduce the total number of immigrants to 250,000 a year, increase border security and end reliance on the United Nations for refugee selection.
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Telford said Trudeau's 2017 tweet and welcoming stance toward Syrian refugees likely haven't lost the Liberals any supporters and may have actually gained them some progressive voters. But it has also produced an angry reaction among those who oppose the Liberal policies, he said.
The electorate has become more polarized since 2015, he said, noting that in the last general election campaign the Conservatives floated the idea of a hotline to report immigrants bringing in "barbaric cultural practices" and it was poorly received.
"Since then, I think that people who are ... tough on immigrants or refugees have frankly been emboldened by the Trump administration in the United States and perhaps movements in Europe as well."