Number of irregular border crossings spikes again in April, dwarfing last year’s total

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Changes could be coming to our immigration system to stem the flow of illegal migrants into Canada, but Ottawa isn't giving any details. The U.S. confirms it's considering a change to the Safe Third Country agreement proposed by Canada. As Mike Le Couteur reports, politics might be behind this play.

The flow of people crossing the Canada-U.S. border between legal checkpoints is continuing to increase, a parliamentary committee heard on Thursday, with the number coming to Canada in the first four months of 2018 dwarfing the total for the same period last year.

Officials with the immigration department struggled to come up with an exact number of RCMP interceptions at the border for April, but say they expect it was “somewhere around” 2,500.

If that’s accurate, it would bring the total for the whole year so far to about 7,550. In comparison, the total between January and April 2017 was just a little over a third of that, at 2,749.

Mike MacDonald, an assistant deputy minister in the department (IRCC) apologized profusely to the committee for not being able to give them a precise answer on April 2018, but he was able to make an educated guess.

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Between April 1 and April 23, he said, there were 1,972 irregular crossings across the entire length of the border. In Quebec specifically, he added, there were 2,142 between April 1 and April 26. From there, he extrapolated the 2,500 for the month.

It represents the continuation of a clear upward trend in the number of crossings since the beginning of 2018.

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MacDonald added that it is “impossible” to predict the number of additional people who may cross between now and the end of the year.

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Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel was visibly angry during the testimony, saying she was flabbergasted that the department could not be more specific when testifying before a parliamentary committee.

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She called it “highly exasperating.”

MacDonald explained that the crossings are hand-counted at the border, and the data needs to be “cleaned” to prevent duplication or other errors at the end of each month, which takes time.

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MacDonald said the main reason that people are citing for coming to Canada continues to be that they are afraid to stay in the U.S. or to go back to their country of origin. Many are now from Nigeria.

When they arrive, most are ending up in major urban centres like Toronto and Montreal. The shelters helping to house some of them are now overwhelmed in both cities, the federal government has been warned. Many asylum seekers are, however, being granted temporary work permits to help them secure employment while they wait for their cases to be reviewed.

The immigration committee heard from a number of government officials on Thursday in relation to the ongoing situation at the border, including representatives from IRCC, the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency, Public Safety Canada and the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).

Safe Third Country Agreement

MacDonald was also asked for some additional clarity on the status of Canada’s discussions with the United States surrounding the Safe Third Country Agreement. A loophole in the agreement is at the heart of why so many people are crossing between legal checkpoints.

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He reiterated that all discussions surrounding the treaty with the Americans are informal, for the moment.

But MacDonald also outlined what Canada considers to be the three “main challenges” with the Safe Third Country Agreement.

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The first is its age, 14 years, which makes it outdated in 2018. Second, he said, it doesn’t reflect the modern technology that can be used to assess and identify people (also known as biometrics) at the border. And finally, it relies on an “absolute principle” that migrants seek protection in the first safe country they arrive in.

There has been “several months” of back-and-forth about those challenges with the Americans, he acknowledged, but no formal requests have been made to amend the agreement or extend it to the entirety of the Canadian border instead of just applying it at official ports of entry.

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“(This) is a start to the conversation,” he said. “We have not gone there. It would not be prudent to try and dictate where a negotiation should go.”

READ MORE: Ottawa and Quebec reach agreements over asylum seekers

NDP MP Jenny Kwan then asked if Canada might consider invoking an article in the treaty that allows it to be temporarily suspended for three months.

“We have not expressed a desire to invoke Article 10,” MacDonald replied.

IRB backlog continues

The Immigration and Refugee Board, meanwhile, is still dealing with a huge backlog of cases. The board is responsible for reviewing each individual asylum claim and making a decision regarding if the person qualifies to remain in Canada as a refugee.

Shereen Benzvy Miller, director general of the IRB’s refugee protection division, told the committee on Thursday that the backlog of asylum requests is still growing each month in spite of all efforts to streamline the evaluation process.

READ MORE: Canada is failing to deport criminals. Here’s why it can take years, sometimes decades

There are still thousands of new claims per month, and 53,000 claims were pending at the beginning of April. But in a single year, the IRB has also improved its efficiency by 40 per cent, the committee was told.

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In the eastern half of the country, Benzvy Miller noted, about 60 per cent of the IRB’s “inventory” of cases consists of people who’ve entered between legal checkpoints.

“It’s difficult to increase capacity on a dime,” she said, adding that recruiting new employees has remained a challenge.

“It can be difficult to attract talent if all you have to offer is a couple of years of employment.”