COMMENTARY: Liberals seek to make immigration ‘wedge issue’ for 2019 federal election
As U.S. President Donald Trump counsels American troops to fire guns at migrants who throw rocks, and vows to set up detention camps for illegal entrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, Canada struck a decidedly different tone toward potential newcomers this week. Federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced that that federal government will increase immigration levels to 350,000 a year by 2021, or one per cent of Canada’s population.
The vast majority of these new arrivals will be selected through economic programs designed to address skill shortages and gaps in the labour market. “In certain regions the hunger for workers is huge,” Hussen remarked.
Unlike the United States, which has long relied on immigrants to fill unskilled jobs, Canada’s immigration program selects for specific qualifications, mitigating the criticism that newcomers “steal” jobs from workers, one which has long fueled anti-immigration rhetoric south of the border.
But Canada’s new numbers also include an increase in the number of refugee admissions, from 43,000 a year today, to 51,700 by 2021, and this could prove more controversial. The question isn’t the numbers per se, but the means by which refugees make their claim. The situation at the Canada-U.S. border, where thousands of claimants have walked across at illegal checkpoints, has strained the refugee determination system to the breaking point. The wait time for hearings has stretched to 18 months, during which time claimants remain in the country and receive government benefits, including housing, which has been provided through a patchwork of college campuses, hotel rooms, and in Montreal, even cots in the hallways of the city’s Olympic Stadium.
In Ontario, the situation is even more dire. In June of this year, Toronto Mayor John Tory pleaded with the federal government for $60 million in aid, citing data from Toronto city staff that showed 3,300 refugees were spread across the city’s homeless shelters; Ottawa offered $11 million. In the nation’s capital itself, a survey conducted in April found that one quarter of that city’s homeless population were refugees.
In July, Ontario’s newly-elected provincial government presented Ottawa with a $200-million bill for the province’s share of refugee expenses; the demand fell on deaf ears. The standoff has sparked a war of words between Ottawa and Queen’s Park, which culminated this week in a testy exchange between Hussen and CBC anchor Vassy Kapelos, in which the Immigration Minister accused his Ontario counterpart, Lisa MacLeod, of being “engaged in fear mongering and using this issue to demonize people.”
This, after MacLeod tweeted the feds have no “credible plan” to deal with migrants who illegally cross the Canadian border. Hussen further claimed that MacLeod had called the asylum seekers names. When pressed, it turned out the name in question was “economic migrants” — not exactly an insult, but an accurate descriptor of at least half the people who have had their claims adjudicated so far.
Over the past year, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has recorded 50,445 refugee claims, of which 40 per cent — 20,593 — were asylum seekers crossing the Canada-U.S. border at unofficial points. Between January 2017 and March 2018, only 3,462 cases were heard and finalized. Of these, 47 per cent were accepted, 36 per cent were rejected, and the rest withdrawn or abandoned. Some 20,116 claims are still pending in the system.
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In other words, one in three asylum seekers is not a refugee, but an economic migrant, looking for a better life. While it is understandable that migrants seek this in Canada — indeed, it is the story of our country — it appears that walking across an undefended border and claiming refugee status has become a loophole many are eager to exploit, allowing people to “jump the queue” instead of applying through the regular immigration system, and collecting taxpayer-funded benefits in the process.
This situation risks fueling anti-immigration sentiment, as does the sense that the federal government has let the issue persist for fear of ruining its “compassionate” image. That image crystallized in January 2017, the day after Trump put out an executive order banning refugees and visitors from Muslim-majority countries, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”
But there is nothing compassionate about allowing people to come here with false hope. There is equally nothing compassionate about asking Canadians to foot the bill, or displacing existing homeless populations to make way for refugee claimants seeking shelter. And there is also nothing compassionate about failing to deport people who are turned down for refugee status, which the government has miserably failed to do, and which it is now attempting to remedy by “cracking down” on deportations. Creating an underclass of illegal migrants will fan the very flames of intolerance that the Liberals claim to oppose, and undermine support for legitimate refugees in the process.
In other words, it’s not just Trump who is exploiting immigration for political gain. This week’s pronouncements reveal that the federal Liberals are clearly spoiling for a fight, hoping to use immigration and refugees as a wedge issue in the next election. They would like nothing more than to paint the federal Conservatives into the same anti-immigration corner they fell into in 2015, when the infamous “barbaric practices” snitch line soured their image with voters. Bashing Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, who are closely aligning themselves with their federal cousins, is one way to do this. Implying comparisons to hard-line Republican policy, so much the better. While it may work at the ballot box, Trudeau should beware, for he is practising the very politics of division he derides. And that can lead to a very, very bad place.
Tasha Kheiriddin can be heard between noon and 2 p.m. ET on Global News Radio 640 Toronto. She’s also a columnist with Global News.
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