April 25, 2017 8:46 am

COMMENTARY: Now is not the time to crack down on border-hoppers

Asylum seekers, claiming to be from Yemen, are arrested by RCMP officers after crossing the border from New York into Canada on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in Hemmingford, Quebec.

The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz
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It’s not a flood — yet — but the river of refugees coming to Canada continues to rise. Since Jan. 1, the RCMP have intercepted 1,860 migrants crossing illegally into Canada from the United States: 315 in January, 658 in February, and 887 in March.

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Most of those have crossed into Quebec, near Lacolle, and into Manitoba, near Emerson. Last Friday, Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch visited Emerson and pledged to take a much harder line on the issue should she become Tory leader.

“Individuals that enter our country illegally should be detained, should be questioned and sent back to the United States,” Leitch told the CBC. “Illegal migration is unfair to those who apply properly and legally.”

No kidding. But unless Leitch intends to change the law, she’s making a hollow promise — just more red meat for the base she’s courting with her “Canadian values test” for immigrants.

READ MORE: COMMENTARY: Kellie Leitch explained her values test. It makes less sense now

The migrants crossing into Canada may be breaking the law, but once they’re here, they can’t be turned back. They have the right to claim asylum, thanks to a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.

And while there are good reasons to close that loophole, it’s hard to see why any Canadian prime minister would be in a rush to do so, in the current cross-border political climate. With NAFTA negotiations looming, U.S. President Donald Trump snarling about Canada beating up on defenceless American dairy farmers and “Buy American” back in fashion in Washington, taking action on the border now could put our trading relationship in deeper jeopardy.

WATCH: How ‘Buy America, Hire American’ will affect the Canadian economy

Consider this: It appears that U.S. border agents actually may be facilitating these illegal crossings. According to Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the union representing Canadian border officials, “[Border officers] are convinced that Americans are ridding themselves of the problem by bringing asylum seekers to Roxham Road instead of driving them to the Lacolle border crossing.”

READ MORE: Regina woman charged with human smuggling after investigation into asylum seekers crossing into Sask.

Trudeau knows that closing the loophole in the Safe Third Country agreement with the United States would empower Canada to deal with the problem, and eliminate an incentive to cross the border illegally. Doing so, however, would risk running afoul of Trump and his voters — who are probably only too happy to see refugees streaming out of their country, rather than into it. So instead of nudging the elephant, the mouse is sitting quietly on the edge of the bed.

WATCH: Ottawa refuses to close loophole asylum seekers take advantage of

The irony, of course, is that it’s not just Trump driving this exodus of refugee claimants; Trudeau’s having an effect as well. The morning after Trump signed his executive order on Jan. 27 halting visas to seven majority-Muslim countries, Trudeau tweeted a photo of himself welcoming a young Syrian refugee.

“Our little town was directly hit by both of those comments,” said Greg Janzen, mayor of Emerson. “Literally, that’s when the numbers really rose… it’s unprecedented.”

But the number of refugee claimants using the United States as a way station rather than a destination actually started rising after Trudeau took office, partly because the Liberal government was seen as more welcoming to newcomers, following its pledge to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees.

Trudeau also made it a priority to lift visa requirements for Mexico, imposed by the previous government in 2009 over concerns that Mexicans were queue-jumping the official immigration process and making bogus asylum claims in Canada. During the 2015 election campaign, Trudeau announced he would lift the visa requirement. “As with the United States,” said Trudeau during the 2015 campaign, “[Prime Minister Stephen] Harper’s approach to relations with Mexico has been belligerent and borderline churlish.”

Churlish or not, Harper was clearly on to something. Since Trudeau lifted the requirements for visas on Dec. 1, 2016, the number of claimants from Mexico has continued to rise. Figures from the Immigration and Refugee Board show that 110 people from Mexico applied for refugee status in March, up from 85 in February, and 71 in January, for a total of 266 in the first three months of 2017 — more than the 241 who claimed refugee status in all of 2016. It’s nowhere near the levels of 2008 when Mexican nationals filed 9,000 refugee claims — nearly 25 per cent of all claims that year — but if trends continue, the increase will impose net costs on Canada of $262 million over 10 years.

I’d wager that the Trump administration probably isn’t too upset about that policy since it means fewer Mexicans seeking to come to the United States — no wall necessary. So, despite the fact that the Canadian government reportedly has told the Mexican government that it will reinstate the visa if asylum claims reach a certain level, Trudeau isn’t likely to take action on this front, either.

Trudeau could not have anticipated Trump’s election when he made his campaign promises, but the mess we are facing now is still of his own making — and he is now powerless to clean it up. Worse yet, he has opened the door for politicians like Leitch to capitalize on the situation by pushing policies that are the exact opposite of the openness Trudeau intended to cultivate.

Canadians can only hope that NAFTA negotiations will be undertaken swiftly and that, once done, the federal government will act to close the Third Safe Country loophole, revisit the Mexican visa requirement, and do whatever else is necessary to ensure that our refugee system remains fair and discourages queue-jumping — without stoking intolerance.

Tasha Kheiriddin can be heard between noon and 2 p.m. ET on Toronto Talk Radio AM640. She’s also a columnist with Global News and iPolitics.ca, where this piece first appeared. 

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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