Chris Alexander is a diplomat and politician who was Canada’s minister of citizenship and Immigration from 2013 to 2015.
In Canada, immigrants and refugees use the front door.
Since U.S. President Donald Trump’s arrival, thousands of people have found new reasons to walk across our borders. The solution is simple: Asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees coming to Canada should be invited – indeed, obliged – to use the front door.
If Canada wishes to be a model of safe, orderly and regular migration, we should not be forcing asylum seekers through the back door. Those scenes of suitcases sliding into muddy gullies in the Eastern Townships or fingers lost to frostbite south of Winkler, Man., simply do not have to be.
To ensure the front door is open, we need to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement – an arrangement we have only with the United States. Those now crossing unsafely, on back roads and snowy trails, deserve the chance to make their claim at points of entry, as asylum seekers from other countries now do.
This would allow the Canadian Border Services Agency and the RCMP to turn back convicted criminals or those whose previous claims have been rejected, while curbing the reach of trafficking networks.
We also need to give the Immigration and Refugee Board more resources – immediately.
At the end of 2015, there were 9,999 claims in the backlog; by the end of March, 2018, 48,967 claims were pending, with new applicants told to expect a hearing in two years.
This breaches Canadian statute, which requires hearings within one or two months. It is also deeply unfair to asylum seekers, whose lives are put on hold.
Why should asylum seekers be coming to Canada from the United States at all?
No Canadian who believes in upholding international humanitarian law can now say, in good conscience, that the United States is a safe country for all categories of persons requiring protection. Mr. Trump has banned people on the basis of nationality, smeared Muslims, Mexicans and other groups and allowed continuing mistreatment of children and families.
U.S. commitment to refugees has faded. When Canada agreed to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in January, 2015 (doubling our commitment to 20,000 in August), the Obama Administration had yet to do so: They agreed to resettle an initial 10,000 only in September.
This year (according to Pew Research Center), the United States has resettled only 10,500 refugees in the six months ending March 31, 2018 – an estimated 1,800 of them Muslims.For the first time in history, our southern neighbour – with nine times our population – is welcoming fewer refugees (in absolute numbers) than Canada. It is also discriminating heavily against Muslims, who represent a high proportion of new refugee populations from Myanmar to Mali.
By keeping the Safe Third Country Agreement in force, we are saying the United States is the only country in the world we trust to do as good a job at protecting those fleeing persecution as we do – when we know it is not.
The United States faces different immigration challenges. Antiquated programs have gone unreformed for decades. The bipartisan failure to resolve the fate of more than 12 million migrants lacking legal status has been corrosive, feeding waves of political polarization without which Mr. Trump probably would not have won the presidency.
Canada remains a place of refuge. Our earliest stories are those of First Nations welcoming other First Nations; of French Huguenots seeking freedom of religion; of Indigenous, American and European Loyalists fleeing revolution. Since Confederation, millions have fled (and are still fleeing) pogroms, genocides, fascism, Communism, war and authoritarian regimes to help build Canada. To be true to who we are, we need to keep the front door open to the world’s most vulnerable.
How would the Trump Administration react? Abdications of leadership require active response. During the World Wars, Vietnam, Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis, Americans came to respect Canadians for taking positions of principle.
Why not close the border? We cannot and must not. On the contrary, we’re obliged by international and Canadian law to give asylum seekers the chance to be heard.
Would this not lead to a spike in claims? Yes, but if the IRB, CBSA and RCMP were resourced properly, asylum rates would quickly fall back. As it is, expenditures by both the IRB and CBSA have been falling over the past two years: Starving these institutions of resources at a time of increased border crossings and a ballooning asylum backlog is just indefensible.
To keep Canada focused on helping the most vulnerable, our asylum system needs further reform. A recent report by Neil Yeates, an esteemed former deputy minister, has excellent proposals in this regard. I made some of my own in last year’s Conservative leadership race.
In December, 2014, I chaired an OECD High Level Policy Forum on Migration, where ministers concluded that long-term, well-planned, skills-based immigration and settlement were keys to future prosperity in every country.
This December in Morocco, world leaders will be adopting a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration under the leadership of the UN Secretary General (who is a former High Commissioner for Refugees) and Louise Arbour (a former High Commissioner for Human Rights who was also a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada).
For Canada to resume its leadership as a model for safe, orderly and regular migration, we need to implement our own laws by eliminating the current backlog – which has quintupled in just over two years – and processing asylum claims promptly, within one or two months.
We also need to make our borders work well – by inviting asylum seekers to use the front door.