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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

While Mexicans fume, Canada's reputation and revenues take a hit Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was correct when he said: "This is not the fault of the Mexican government. … This is a problem with Canadian refugee law, which encourages bogus claims."

Mr. Harper made his comment about a month after Canada, on July 14, 2009, suddenly slapped visas on Mexican visitors to stop a surge of largely illegal refugees. Since then, nothing has been done to change the law. And the Canadian media lost interest in the story.

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Refugee claims from Mexicans are down from 7,258 in the first six months of 2009 to 2,038 in the second half. The visas have worked - but at a price.

Overall tourism and business travel from Mexico is way down. The costs to the Canadian economy and government from this decline outweigh the savings from fewer refugee claimants. Canada's reputation in Mexico has suffered badly.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, in announcing the visas, promised an overhaul of the refugee-determination system. He had proposals all set to present to Parliament last fall. He needed more money for his changes, and it has not been forthcoming.

Mr. Kenney predicted little impact from imposing visas after a short transition period. The government estimated that visitors from Mexico might fall to about 150,000 from 250,000. These estimates were wrong.

According to Statistics Canada, visitors from Mexico in the last half of 2009 (after the visa imposition) fell to about 45,000, which means 90,000 on an annualized basis. That compares with about 250,000 in 2008. Visitors in November, 2009 were down 61 per cent compared to November, 2008.

Yes, the recession caused travel to fall by about 10 per cent from all of Latin America. So let's assume that of the 160,000 drop (250,000 to 90,000), 10 per cent was related to the economy. That still makes a drop of about 144,000.

Nobody knows how long the average Mexican tourist spends in Canada. Jaime Horwitz, who runs a company encouraging Mexican tourism, says 75 per cent of Mexicans come independently rather than in tour groups. They stay one to two weeks.

So let's be conservative and assume a stay of only seven days. That makes about one million person days a year lost. If each person spends $300 a day (Mexicans are big shoppers when they travel), that's $300-million lost from the Canadian economy.

Add costs at the Canadian embassy in Mexico City for staff processing visas, plus those at the immigration department in Ottawa - costs only partially offset by the $75 cost of the tourist visa - and the total bill exceeds $300-million.

What about savings? The Immigration and Refugee Board says its per-case cost is about $3,500. Before the visas, it looked as if the IRB would have had 11,000 Mexican cases in 2009, so the processing costs would have been about $38.5-million - to which would have been added welfare and health-care costs of an unknown size.

Bottom line? All the "savings" Mr. Kenney talked about to justify the visas vanish (and more) when the impact on the overall economy is considered. And how does one measure the drubbing that Canada's reputation has taken in Mexico, especially when senior Mexican officials, including judges, have been refused visas!

It's no wonder Mexicans feel aggrieved. How long does it take to get a visa? One part of the Canadian government website in Mexico recommends applying 30 days in advance; another part suggests six weeks.

Want a tourist visa? Here's a sampling of what's required over and above the usual passport and photo: a signed letter from your employer granting a leave of absence and specifying your salary (in French or English only, as Spanish will not be accepted!); original bank documents showing your financial history over the past six months; recent pay slips (a business owner must submit proof of the past three years' income tax statements); evidence of assets in Mexico; evidence of previous travel (previous passports).

The Harper government has made Latin America a touchstone of its foreign policy. Yet with the imposition of visas on Mexicans, Canada now requires visas from every Latin American country. The bureaucratic cost of administering them can only be imagined.

In retaliation, countries insist on visas for Canadians. Canadians travelling to these countries therefore pay the price of our inability of developing a refugee-determination system that gets rid of bogus claims fast, thereby forcing Canada to use the visa system.

Mr. Harper and his minister promised action. We are still waiting, while Mexicans fume and Canada loses money and reputation.

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