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Canada Asylum seekers from the U.S.: A guide to the saga so far, and what Canadians think of it

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Asylum seekers from the U.S.: A guide to the saga so far, and what Canadians think of it

Trump's crackdown on immigration and a loophole in Canada's asylum laws are prompting desperate refugees to make dangerous wilderness journeys from the U.S. Check back here for The Globe's coverage of what's happening, and the debate that the refugees' arrival has provoked

Abdullahi Warsame, Lul Abdi Ali and Delmar Xasan, all refugees from Somalia, walk north toward Canada in Noyes, Minn., on Feb. 19, 2017.

Why refugees are heading north

A month ago, U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration closed the door on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The courts eventually put that order on hold, but Mr. Trump issued a second one that removed Iraq from the list. Meanwhile, U.S. law-enforcement agencies have ramped up measures to deport unauthorized immigrants, and Mr. Trump says the U.S. will move ahead with his election campaign promise to build a wall along the Mexican border.

A rising number of asylum seekers in the U.S. are turning to Canada instead, crossing the border in remote fields and forests and risking frostbite in the winter cold. Several of the travellers The Globe has spoken with say Mr. Trump's policies are the reason they made the trip:

This is due to Trump. We have to go to Canada, the U.S. is no good.

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Somali man thought he’d die on walk from U.S. to Canada: Friend


Where they're coming in

Quebec's 813-kilometre frontier with New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine has seen a large spike in asylum seekers crossing into Canada. In Quebec, the number of asylum claims rose from 42 in January, 2015, to 452 last month. Many have entered near communities like Hemmingford, Que., near the Lacolle border crossing.

The other major crossing point is Manitoba, where the tiny community of Emerson – a village of about 700 people north of the Minnesota-North Dakota state line – has received dozens of asylum seekers this year. Local emergency officials have been overwhelmed by the influx, and the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency and federal and provincial governments have offered help.

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Roxham Road, along the edge of the Canada-U.S. border, is seen from Champlain, N.Y., on Feb. 19, 2017.

Why they're crossing in the wilderness

Asylum seekers who cross the border in remote areas are taking advantage of a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, a 2004 deal between Canada and the United States. The deal prohibits refugees who've been rejected in one country from seeking asylum in the other. This means that, if asylum seekers show up at official border crossings, authorities will turn them back. But the deal doesn't cover people who cross unofficially – so-called "irregular migration" – and then claim asylum once they're in Canada.

Police can't legally do anything to stop someone from stepping over the border to be arrested. Once in custody, refugee claimants on Canadian soil are entitled to an oral hearing and fair procedures, regardless of whether they entered through a safe third country, law professor Efrat Arbel explains:

It doesn't matter how you've entered. Once you make your way in you advance your refugee claim as usual. If you've entered through a field, then the safe-third-country agreement wouldn't be attached to your claim. You're not obligated to disclose the manner by which you have entered.

None of the asylum seekers who've crossed the border this year have been charged for illegally entering the country, federal officials said at a March 2 briefing. Their status is now up to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

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Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

The political debate

Liberals: The influx of asylum seekers has put renewed pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to revisit the Safe Third Country Agreement, but Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said there are no plans to do so. He's also said the government has no plans to raise the current refugee quotas. The federal cabinet met to discuss the issue on March 7 and explored scenarios for major increases in the refugee influx. But Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the heads of the RCMP and the CBSA reassured the government that they had enough resources to handle things at the moment. "If they feel there is a tool or more resources that they need to deal with the situation, they will certainly let us know," he said.

Conservatives: MPs Michelle Rempel and Tony Clement are pressing the government to deter refugees from crossing illegally, saying they're a burden on local law enforcement.

NDP: The New Democrats are pressing Ottawa to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement and lift the cap on privately sponsored refugees.

U.S. government: Mr. Trump's Homeland Security chief, John Kelly, came to Ottawa on March 10 to discuss the asylum seekers and other issues with Mr. Trudeau and the ministers for Foreign Affairs, Public Safety and Immigration. He was the first Trump cabinet member to make an official visit to Canada.

Provinces: Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has urged the federal government to do more to address the asylum-seeker issue. In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Pallister called on Mr. Trudeau to "take it up" with the Americans and impress upon Mr. Trump the human cost of the exodus.

Cities: Municipal governments have begun responding to U.S. immigration policies by declaring themselves "sanctuary cities," meaning undocumented immigrants and refugees can access local services. Montreal – a city near one of the asylum seekers' preferred crossing points, and whose mayor, Denis Coderre, is a former federal immigration minister – declared itself a sanctuary city on Monday, joining similar initiatives in Toronto, Hamilton and London, Ont. Some refugee advocates consider the measures to be largely symbolic.

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What Canadians think

A Reuters/Ipsos poll published March 20 found nearly half of Canadians want to deport asylum seekers who cross the border illegally to escape Mr. Trump's immigration crackdown, with four out of 10 respondents saying illegal crossings could make the country "less safe."

A month earlier, an Angus Reid Institute poll showed a sizable minority, 41 per cent, said Canada was accepting too many refugees. But of the 1,508 Canadians surveyed, a majority broadly supported Mr. Trudeau's refugee policy, which aims to welcome 40,000 refugees this year, down from 55,800 last year.


What's next?

What the U.S. is doing: Mr. Trump's new executive order on immigration takes effect March 16.

What Canadian law enforcement is doing: Canada's border agencies have moved around staff to handle the rise in illegal crossings. For now, the government has gathered biometric data on all individuals and conducted health assessments before releasing them, officials said at a March 2 background media briefing on the situation.

What refugee advocates are doing: A group of more than 200 Canadian law professors is pressing Ottawa to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is also monitoring the situation, though its representative in Canada, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, recently said the crossings were not yet a concern and asylum seekers were being treated according to Canadian and international law.

What refugees are doing: Law-enforcement officials are watching the weather in case warmer temperatures lead asylum seekers to attempt more wilderness journeys.


With reports from Justin Giovannetti, Les Perreaux, Bill Curry, Daniel Leblanc, Sunny Dhillon, Sean Fine, Shawn McCarthy, Geoff Nixon, Gary Mason, The Canadian Press and Reuters


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