U.S. House Republicans drafted the Canada-U.S. border into their partisan arsenal Tuesday, urging President Joe Biden to crack down on the flow of illegal drugs and migrants not just across America’s southern frontier, but its northern one as well.
The new 28-member Northern Border Security Caucus is focused exclusively on what it calls a badly under-resourced, largely unnoticed national security concern that just happens to be the longest international border in the world.
One after another, members of the newly convened coalition, Republicans all, acknowledged that the perils of the northern border pale in comparison to the burgeoning migratory crisis south of the Rio Grande.
But a steady increase in recent months in the number of “encounters” between border agents and people lacking U.S. legal status suggests it’s a problem that will get worse, they told a news conference outside the Capitol.
“It’s almost like if we don’t recognize it, it doesn’t exist,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly, who co-chairs the caucus with Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana.
Issues of specific concern to Canada often struggle to get oxygen in Congress. But with election-minded Republicans anxious to score points against a Democratic president vulnerable on the immigration file, the northern border presents a novel way of adding fuel to the political fire.
To be sure, the rhetoric from Tuesday’s news conference was as fiery as it gets, often making it hard to know which border they were talking about.
“My question is, where is the outrage? Where’s the outrage, America?” Kelly thundered.
“You watch your sons and daughters suffer under this. You watch our country under a siege. If these folks had been wearing the uniform of a foreign army, do you think we would have acted on it?”
Officials in Kelly’s office say the caucus is bipartisan, although so far no Democrats have taken them up on the standing offer to join.
While the new caucus signals a new and uncommon congressional interest in Canada, it was abundantly clear Tuesday that the group’s political sights are trained squarely on a much closer target: the one just a few blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue.
“This is Joe Biden’s border crisis. I haven’t heard a question about what Joe Biden needs to do,” said New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, one of the most vocal Republican critics in the House of Representatives.
“What’s happening on the southern border impacts the entire United States and obviously has an impact on the northern border. So what the Biden administration needs to do is focus on border security and admit that we have a problem.”
The U.S. does have an illegal migration problem at its northern border — and it seems to be getting worse.
From October through January, the first four months of fiscal 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 55,736 encounters at or near the Canada-U.S. border with people deemed inadmissible.
That was more than twice the nearly 24,000 encounters that took place during the same four months the previous year, and already halfway to the 109,535 reported during the entire 12-month stretch of fiscal 2022.
The data includes 2,227 northern border encounters by the U.S. Border Patrol during the first quarter of fiscal 2023, nearly matching the 2,238 reported by agents over the entire previous 12-month period.
And Canada did come in for criticism Tuesday, specifically from lawmakers and union officials who consider their northern neighbour’s visa rules for Mexican citizens and foreign students to be a lot less stringent than their own.
“Mexican citizens can travel to Canada without a visa,” said Brandon Budlong, a local president with the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents U.S. border agents. “Mexican citizens can land in Toronto and illegally cross into my sector in Buffalo in a couple of hours.”
Budlong also cited the case of the Patel family, four Indian nationals who died of exposure in Manitoba during a fearsome blizzard, just steps from the border. The father brought his wife and two kids to Canada as a foreign student, but the U.S. was always their intended destination, he said.
A Florida man who was arrested last winter by U.S. border agents in Minnesota, not far from where the Patel family’s bodies were found, is now facing human smuggling charges.
And as recently as Feb. 19, U.S. officials recovered the body of a man from Mexico who was believed to have entered Vermont from Quebec.
Customs and Border Protection officials at the northern border are often called upon to help support their Mexico-U.S. colleagues, said Rep. Tony Gonzales, whose Texas district includes a large swath of the southwestern border.
“Oftentimes, there are more Border Patrol agents from the northern border in my sector than there are in their own areas,” Gonzales said, as he described meeting agents during a shift change last Christmas.
“One of the things that I asked was, ‘How many of you all are not from this area?’ Literally, every hand went up — they’re all northern border areas,” he said.
“And I smile, and I go, ‘Welcome to south Texas. Is this your first time here?’ They go, ‘No, no, Tony, this is our fifth time here.”’
Canada, too, has its own issues when it comes to irregular migration across the border.
Would-be asylum seekers have been flowing from the U.S. across the land border into Canada for years, especially at Roxham Road, a spot near the town of Hemmingford, Que., that’s arguably Canada’s busiest unofficial border crossing.
Streams of people, some of them having entered the U.S. at the southern border, routinely make their way to the junction, where the Safe Third Country Agreement — a Canada-U.S. treaty that turns around would-be refugees who try to make a claim at an official crossing — doesn’t currently apply.
Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board reported 5,599 asylum claims by “irregular border crossers” between July and September 2022, compared with 5,148 during the same stretch of 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s the highest total for that three-month period since 2017, former president Donald Trump’s first year in office, when more than 8,500 people slipped over the border and into Canada in search of asylum.
With those numbers ticking back up, the political pressure has been mounting on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Zinke, who acknowledged that the U.S. isn’t the only North American country with an irregular migration problem, didn’t specifically reference the agreement, but did sound receptive to the idea of a bilateral solution.
“There’s a lot of areas that Canadian government can work with us on,” Zinke said.
“We would ask them to work with us on it, because it’s a problem that affects both sides of the border. Drugs are drugs, whether they’re in Edmonton or Lethbridge or Missoula. This same sequence is killing both of us.”