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Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a joint press conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the National Palace in Mexico City on Feb. 18, 2014.SEAN KILPATRICK/The Canadian Press

Ottawa is taking steps to ease travel for some Mexican visitors to Canada, while keeping a controversial visa requirement in place that has contributed to strained relations between the two countries in recent years.

The move comes as Canada prepares to lift a separate visa restriction for travellers from Chile, according to a government source, a decision that is expected to add to Mexican officials' frustrations. The Mexican government has been pressing Canada to remove its visa requirement for years, saying it could stand in the way of efforts to strengthen economic ties.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced on Monday that Mexicans who have travelled to Canada or the United States during the past 10 years will be allowed to apply for expedited visa processing. The government said a pilot of the new program, called CAN+, had an approval rate of more than 95 per cent, with visas issued in a week or less.

David Goldstein, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said he would like to see the government allow Mexicans to travel to Canada without a visa, but called the decision to expedite the application process "the next best thing."

The Mexican embassy issued a statement on Monday calling the announcement a "very positive step" that would build toward a better co-operative relationship between the two countries.

The visa requirement was put in place in 2009 to deal with the large number of Mexicans who were claiming refugee status in Canada. However, those who want to see it lifted say changes to Canada's refugee laws mean the visa is no longer necessary.

The restriction has contributed to serious tensions between the two countries, casting a chill over Prime Minister Stephen Harper's February trip to Mexico. In addition, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has cancelled his plans to travel to Canada this June.

Mexico's ambassador to Canada, Francisco Suarez, told The Globe and Mail earlier this year that his government had done what it could to persuade Canada to remove the visa restrictions. "We've done everything positively and constructively, and the ball is on the other side, in Canada," he said.

However, the Canadian government has given no indication of any plans to remove the requirement. Speaking to reporters in Mexico City earlier this year, Mr. Harper said that visas are an issue for sovereign governments and that Canada remains concerned about security and illegal migration. He did not elaborate on those concerns.

However, a May, 2012, report by the Canada Border Services Agency, obtained through Access to Information laws, indicated that Mexico was a "significant transit point" for irregular migrants on their way to Canada, including those from Romania, Sri Lanka and Iran. A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada would not say whether the information in the report played any role in the government's decision to maintain visa requirements for Mexican travellers.

So far this year, 34,000 visitor visas and work and study permits have been issued to Mexican citizens, which the federal government says is a 20-per-cent increase from the same period last year. A spokesperson for Mr. Alexander said the Mexican visa has helped cut improper asylum claims from Mexico by 85 per cent.

A statement from Mr. Alexander's office said the expedited visa program would free up more visa officers, resulting in faster visa processing for all travellers from Mexico. The government expects about half of Mexican travellers to be eligible for the expedited program.

A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration said in an e-mailed statement that the government is reviewing the visa requirement for Chilean citizens because of improvements in migration trends and overall country conditions. "A visa review is a key step in determining whether a country meets Canada's criteria for a visa exemption," Sonia Lesage said. "A number of objective criteria are considered in making a decision to lift or impose a visa, including socio-economic profile, immigration issues, the integrity of travel documents, safety and security issues, border management, and human rights."

With a report from Jeffrey Simpson in Ottawa

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