Officials in the United States have confirmed they are reviewing a Canadian proposal to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement, but Ottawa maintains that “no formal negotiations” are underway on the matter.
The apparent contradiction between the two sides comes as nearly 100 people continue crossing the border illegally each day to seek asylum in Canada — a number that is expected to rise as the weather warms.
Speaking on background, U.S. officials said that the Department of Homeland Security has no decision to announce at this time on the proposal by Canada (the details of which remain unclear), but is working closely with the Canada Border Services Agency on a variety of fronts.
WATCH: Social programs strained from large number of asylum seekers
The comments were made less than a day after Reuters reported that Canada has been trying for seven months to convince the U.S. to extend the Safe Third Country Agreement and have it apply across the entire length of the border. That would close a loophole that has resulted in over 26,000 illegal crossings over the last 15 months.
Officials in Ottawa, however, maintain that no formal talks are underway to modify the agreement.
“As previously stated we have been closely engaged with the United States on issues related to irregular migration and our shared border,” said Mathieu Genest, spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.
“There have been no formal negotiations on the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). We are in continuous discussions on improving all aspects of managing the border including through potential modernization of the STCA.”
WATCH: Growing number of asylum seekers putting pressure on Quebec resources
The Safe Third Country Agreement requires that once someone sets foot in the U.S., they must make their asylum claim there, and cannot then cross into Canada to make a claim here (there are a few exceptions involving people with family in Canada, for example). But it only applies when people show up at a designated, legal border crossing.
Walking across the border on foot between checkpoints results in asylum seekers being arrested by the RCMP, processed by border officials, subjected to security and identity checks, then permitted to try to claim asylum in Canada.
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said Tuesday that her party has been calling on the government to extend the agreement and close the loophole for months. The Reuters report from Monday night indicates Ottawa began reaching out to Washington as early as September.
“Yet the minister of immigration, when he’s appeared before our (citizenship and immigration) committee, has consistently said that they are not broaching this topic with the Americans,” Rempel told reporters.
“So I actually don’t know what’s true based on the minister’s testimony … If he’s not telling parliamentary committee that this is something that they’re looking at … how would the Americans take them seriously?”
Rempel added that if the Americans “are going to drag their heels on this,” then both Hussen and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau need to examine “other legislative solutions that ensure that the Safe Third Country Agreement, and the spirit of it, is applied to the entire border.”
In an editorial published by Quebec’s Le Soleil newspaper late Monday, Hussen argued that treating the whole border like a legal crossing would only result in people trying to slip through undetected, compromising the safety of Canadians.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale agreed on Tuesday, calling such an idea “entirely impractical.” He characterized the discussions with the U.S. as “very exploratory… it’s very early days.”
In the first two weeks of April, the last period for which confirmed numbers are available, approximately 94 people per day were crossing illegally. That’s up from an average of 64 per day in March.
While last summer saw many Haitian families arrive, a large proportion of the new would-be claimants are from Nigeria. Canadian officials say they have been landing in the U.S. using traveller visas before immediately heading north. Some spend only a few hours on American soil, and Canada says the U.S. is cooperating when it comes to issuing the visas.
“U.S. officials have responded swiftly and effectively to issues we have raised regarding visas and other migration matters,” Genest said.
Hussen’s office has promised that a renewed plan for assisting asylum seekers once they arrive will be in place in the coming weeks. Quebec, which has welcomed the vast majority of the arrivals, complained in April that its financial and social resources were stretched far too thin, and asked Ottawa to step in and help. Toronto also says its shelters are at capacity.
The federal government is, among other things, looking into transporting many of the asylum seekers directly to smaller communities in Ontario once they cross the border if Ontario was their intended destination. Many are being granted temporary work permits to allow them to find jobs while they wait for a decision on their status in Canada.
-With files from Bryan Mullan, Rebecca Lindell and Mike Le Couteur
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