U.S. inches closer to allowing talks to amend Safe Third Country Agreement

RCMP officers help a family of asylum claimants as they cross the border into Canada from the United States, Monday, February 20, 2017 near Hemmingford, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson.

American officials appear to be inching closer to authorizing the start of talks to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement with Canada.

Speaking on background, an individual with knowledge of the matter said the Department of Homeland Security has sent a request to the Department of State seeking the authority to negotiate changes to the existing deal, which lays out that asylum seekers in either of the two countries must make their claim in the first country they arrive in.

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The Globe and Mail first reported on the process on Monday morning.

It comes after Global News reported exclusively that Canadian immigration officials had concerns dating back at least to January 2018 that the Safe Third Country Agreement was “no longer working as intended” in light of the influx of migrants crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada in the last two years.

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Even after that advice was given in the form of a memo to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, he and other officials continued defending the deal publicly.

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However, seeking approval to renegotiate the agreement does not mark the start of formal talks.

It is simply an authorization for American officials to proceed with them if they are so inclined.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been mum on the question of why there has been little discernible progress on amending the deal, despite Border Security Minister Bill Blair saying repeatedly he has asked American officials to do so.

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When asked about it on March 21, however, he hinted there may be political challenges to getting the U.S. to agree to close a loophole in the agreement, which immigration officials have said acts as an incentive for asylum seekers to cross the border at irregular points of entry to make their claims in Canada.

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“There’s been challenges in getting them to move forward on their northern borders in ways that make sense,” Trudeau told reporters, adding that the border issue there has been politicized.

U.S. President Donald Trump has taken a hardline approach against immigration and asylum seekers since coming into office in January 2017.

That has led some, including Canada’s New Democratic Party, to argue that the U.S. should no longer be considered a safe third country where asylum claims will be heard fairly, as is defined under the agreement, and that the agreement should be revoked.

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The Conservatives, in contrast, have pushed for the government to apply the provisions of the agreement to the entire border. That would mean any irregular border crossers would be treated the same as those who try to cross at official checkpoints, and be turned back to make their claim in the U.S.

Some 40,000 irregular migrants have crossed into Canada from the U.S. since early 2017.

A spokesperson for Blair said amending the agreement is a priority for the minister to do “as soon as possible,” but offered no further details on the state of talks or why it has taken the U.S. so long to move towards allowing the potential for negotiations.

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“Recently the Minister was in Washington and New York to this end,” said press secretary Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux in an email.

“While we are encouraged by the interest in this issue, we do not comment on internal US government processes of this nature.”

— With files from Global’s Rebecca Lindell and Jackson Proscow

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