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Trudeau plays down concerns of 'uncontrolled immigration'

A cab drops off a couple of asylum seekers at the U.S./Canada border near Champlain, N.Y., on Aug. 20, 2017.


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadians can continue to have confidence in the country's immigration system, and defended his government's response to the surge of asylum seekers who have avoided regular border crossings to enter Canada from the United States this summer.

"I can understand the concerns that Canadians have about whether this is a shortcut, whether somehow this is uncontrolled immigration," the Prime Minister said on Wednesday.

But he insisted the would-be refugees were gaining no advantage by walking over the border through irregular routes, and they would be subject to the same screening as other claimants.

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"The rules on Canada's immigration system continue to be enforced," he said.

More than 7,500 people have streamed across the Canada-U.S. border since June, and Mr. Trudeau was in Montreal for a meeting of a new federal-provincial task force that is trying to address the situation. The Prime Minister said his government has added staff to speed up their processing, but he offered no targets or timelines.

He also said Ottawa would look at accelerating the pace of granting the claimants temporary work permits so they would not be dependent on government support.

But federal opposition parties say Ottawa was slow to respond to the wave of migrants, some of whom have been housed temporarily in tent villages at the Quebec border with New York State.

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Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil revealed on Wednesday that a third of the migrants are under the age of 18.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel called the situation a crisis.

"Here we are at the 11th hour, heading into winter, with tent cities at our border when the Prime Minister is finally coming out," Ms. Rempel said to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday. "He needs to have a plan and he needs to explain it to Canadians. … This is his problem."

The Conservatives and the NDP have also taken Mr. Trudeau to task for a tweet he issued in January shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a plan to ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The tweet welcomed people fleeing war and persecution, using the hashtag #WelcometoCanada, and went viral.

Ms. Rempel said it gave potential asylum claimants "false hope."

"I absolutely think that that set the tone. Man, was that ever irresponsible," she said.

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About 85 per cent of those who are crossing into Canada are Haitians who had been living in the United States, some of whom began to head to Canada because the Trump administration is considering ending a program that gave Haitians temporary protected status after their homeland's 2010 earthquake.

Ottawa says that only 50 per cent of asylum applications from Haiti were successful last year.

The asylum seekers are crossing at unmanned border points because if they used regular ports of entry, Canada would send them back to the United States because of an agreement between the two countries.

The Safe Third Country Agreement says refugees must make asylum claims in the first safe country they reach, meaning that those who arrive first in the United States cannot then make a claim in Canada. Many of those crossing into Canada in recent weeks have been in the United States for years.

The NDP wants Canada to suspend the agreement.

"It contradicts the reality of the anti-immigration policies put in place by the Trump administration as well as the lived experience of many in the immigrant community living in the US," NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan wrote in a letter to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen. "Additionally, the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, which elevated the racist, anti-immigrant and white supremacist movements to a level not seen in North America for over a generation, undeniably increases insecurity for all people of colour."

Mr. Trudeau said he has no intention of changing the deal.

"The United Nations has made a determination that even with the shift in immigration policies of the United States, they still fully qualify for holding up their end of the bargain on the Safe Third Country," he said.

With a report from Michelle Zilio in Ottawa

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