Donald Trump's threat to expel 60,000 Haitians granted temporary protection in the U.S. has, literally overnight, placed Canada's beleaguered immigration system under severe strain. While Canada hasn't yet endured any serious permanent harm, unless some quick and ingenious policy decisions are made by Ottawa, its border services and law enforcement agencies could be overwhelmed with potentially hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers.
What started off as a trickle has quickly turned into a tsunami of Haitians coming into Canada over unmarked crossing points, mostly at the New York state-Quebec boundary. Each day brings several hundred people, mostly young men from Haiti and a handful of other countries (one reportedly said he was from Syria but spoke only Spanish).
Some have even flown in from Florida and taken a taxi to the border. Hosting facilities have been overwhelmed to the point that new arrivals are being placed in Montreal's Olympic Stadium and at another makeshift facility near Cornwall, Ont.
On Aug 17, the RCMP reported that it has intercepted 3800 asylum seekers crossing illegally into Quebec since the start of the month, an average of more than 200 a day. "[These numbers] are unprecedented," said RCMP spokesperson Claude Castonguay.
By not reporting to regular ports of entry, these asylum seekers know that they can circumvent the 2002 bilateral Safe Third Country Agreement (STC) and make refugee claims in Canada. If they entered at official ports of entry, they likely would be sent back to the U.S. to make an asylum claim or because they had already made one which had been denied.
Of course it doesn't help that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is encouraging the asylum seekers to keep on coming, saying the system can handle the flow. And what's behind the Haitian flow is actually scary. As well as the Haitians, 86,000 Hondurans in the United States will see their temporary protected status expire in January. About 260,000 El Salvadorans will see it expire in March. Currently there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, so its easy to see why the STC agreement is an important safety valve for Canada.
Toronto immigration lawyer Chantal Desloges told me that the application of the Refugee Convention in the United States, compared to Canada, is "tougher, more politicized and often applied through a very restrictive interpretation."
Desloges adds that the U.S. and Canada used to have an agreement where the U.S. would take back failed asylum seekers bounced from Canada but that agreement expired a few years back and was never renewed.
Giving these travellers access to the Canadian refugee claim system also makes a mockery of the international definition of a bonafide refugee.
Experts rightfully fear serious harm to the integrity of the immigration system — saying they're essentially queue jumping ahead of bona fide refugee claimants from source countries such as Syria. In response to growing criticism, the Canadian government over the weekend went on the defensive, falsely claiming that the the Haitians are the same as any other category of asylum seekers.
Giving these travellers access to the Canadian refugee claim system also makes a mockery of the international definition of a bonafide refugee. It runs contrary some basic tenets of refugee law, namely that persons are expected to claim in their first country of exile, and no evidence exists that the American system for asylum claims has actually been compromised because of President Trump.
Back in 2014, Canada told its own group of Haitians who had been allowed to stay on following the earthquake that they must return home. And in 1999, most of the irregular marine arrivals from China's Fujian province were detained until their refugee claims were processed and almost all were deported back to China following a negative decision.
It could be argued that refugee claimants in the United States are now more at tremendous risk — given several executive orders related to immigration — and that they've a higher chance of being detained or face expedited removal. Some experts — including Deborah Anker, a Professor and Director of Harvard University's Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program — claim that the United States is no longer a safe country.
Meanwhile Trump and his administration are staying quiet on this issue, presumably delighted to see these illegal asylum seekers leave the U.S., and not be faced with the agony and cost of deporting them early next year.
The bottom line? If Canada continues to allow bogus asylum seekers unlimited entry into the country, it will be deluged. And processing them will take years and cost millions. As it is, processing times for asylum hearings have increased to as much as 11 years and claimants could cost the country $2.97 billion in federal social support from 2017 through 2021, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board.
If Canada continues to allow bogus asylum seekers unlimited entry into the country, it will be deluged.
What we have is an untenable situation and one which the Canadian prime minister should right immediately. Even with sensitive NAFTA talks coming up, Canada should summon the resolve to tell the Trump administration to come up with a quick solution that will prevent the situation from turning into a crisis.
One of the best avenues at the moment is to demand re-negotiation of the STC agreement so that persons who attempt to cross outside designated points of entry, and who are observed by law enforcement or immigration officials, should be treated the same as those who use regular entry channels.
Immigration officials should also apply a more hardened standard to screening Haitian claimants by scrutinizing claims of those who failed to claim in the U.S. within a year of being there. It should be a major factor in each case.
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