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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney hold a news conference in Ottawa on June 16, 2011. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney hold a news conference in Ottawa on June 16, 2011. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

On human smuggling, Tories plan to make Canada less desirable Add to ...

For the Conservative government, new legislation that will subject some refugee claimants to detention is about more than deterring human smuggling.

It's also about persuading both Canadians and Americans that this country's borders are secure.

The Conservative government reintroduced legislation Thursday that aims to discourage ships from arriving off Canada's coasts crammed with migrants seeking asylum. The bill allows the immigration minister to designate such claimants as an "irregular arrival," making them subject to detention for up to a year while their identity is verified and their claims processed.

The purpose of the legislation, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said in an interview, is to make Canada less desirable as a destination for migrants who sometimes pay tens of thousands of dollars to human smugglers to travel here on unsafe vessels, such as the roughly 500 who arrived on the Sun Sea and Ocean Lady in 2009 and 2010.

But it is also intended, he said, to assure the U.S. government that Canada is taking the steps necessary to control the border at a time when the two governments are negotiating new economic and security agreements.

"We're doing this for our own reasons, to maintain the integrity of our immigration and refugee systems," Mr. Kenney said. "But there is no doubt it has the added advantage of building confidence with our American friends with respect to continental security."

Under the legislation, irregular-arrival claimants who do obtain refugee status would be prohibited from obtaining permanent-resident status or from sponsoring family members for five years, and could be returned to their homeland if conditions there improve.

The bill also toughens penalties for human smugglers and for owners of ships who carry human cargo.

The government introduced identical legislation last autumn, but it was blocked by opposition parties in what was then a minority government. They believe the bill would give the minister far too much arbitrary power and would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"It sets up a two-tier refugee system," said Don Davies, the NDP's immigration critic. People fleeing by ship from oppressive and dangerous environments are no less legitimate refugee claimants than people seeking asylum at an airport or land crossing, he said.

Gordon Maynard, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer and former chairman of the Canadian Bar Association, said parts of the legislation may violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and would not survive a court challenge.

But "bad legislation can be kept in place a long time" before the courts finally strike it down, he said.

A central priority for the Harper government is to keep Canadians committed to the developed world's most open immigration policy - admitting more people, per capita, than any other developed nation - at a time when other governments are under increasing domestic pressure to close their doors.

"We have this phenomenal situation where Canada is the only Western liberal democracy with virtually no xenophobic or anti-immigrant voices in our public discourse," Mr. Kenney said.

Maintaining public confidence in the system, he said, depends on ensuring that queue jumpers aren't able to abuse it.

"In our research, we find this sentiment most acutely among immigrants to Canada, not surprisingly," he said. Those who migrated to this country legally, he believes, are the most intolerant of those who flout the rules.

This policy of retaining high levels of immigration while cracking down on alleged abusers of the system does not appear to have hurt Conservative support among immigrant voters - quite the opposite. Conservative candidates scored victories on May 2 in many urban ridings with large immigrant populations.

In the months to come, the Conservatives plan to adjust the points system that determines who is eligible to come to Canada, further emphasizing an ability to find jobs in an evolving Canadian economy.

Legislation will also target those who live overseas but feign residency in Canada through false addresses and the like, along with those who help make that possible.

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