Christina Clark-Kazak is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.
The recent deaths of eight people at the Canada-U.S. border are the tragic but predictable consequences of policies that fail to account for the realities of global migration.
Last week, police reported that eight bodies – including an infant and two-year-old child – were found in the St. Lawrence River near the Kanien’kehá:ka community of Akwesasne. Six adults holding Indian and Romanian citizenship, along with two Canadian children of the Romanian couple, were reportedly trying to cross irregularly into the United States. Casey Oakes, an Akwesasne resident, is still missing.
What may surprise Canadians is that the victims appeared to be heading from Canada into the United States. But the issue of irregular migration has long cut both ways – and recently changes by both parties only make matters worse.
This tragedy occurred less than a week after U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement. While most of the media and political attention has focused primarily on the resulting closure of the irregular border crossing at Roxham Road in Quebec, the deal also requires, with limited exceptions, anyone claiming asylum after arriving by land to make their refugee claim in the first country they reach, either the U.S. or Canada.
The Canadian government’s primary objective appears to be to limit the overall number of refugee claims in Canada. The deal allows Canada to turn back refugee claimants at official land ports of entry, and to deport people who cross irregularly from the U.S. and subsequently make an asylum claim.
While they are small in number compared with the 2.4 million encounters by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the country’s southern border with Mexico in 2022, Mr. Biden faced domestic political pressure to address the increasing numbers of people crossing irregularly into the U.S. from Canada. These irregular crossings, typically motivated by family and community networks and employment opportunities in the U.S., required the Americans and Canadians to publicly co-operate on the issue.
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Many migrant fatalities over the past year have involved people crossing north to south. In January, 2022, the Patel family from India died while attempting to enter from Manitoba. Fritznel Richard, a Haitian man, died trying to reach his family in the U.S. from Quebec in December, 2022. In February, 2023, Jose Leos Cervantes, from Mexico, died shortly after crossing into New York State in sub-zero temperatures. These deaths occurred because there was no option like Roxham Road to allow for relatively safe, irregular passage from Canada to the U.S.
However, the resulting STCA amendment actually reduces overall immigration pathways, thereby increasing the chances of irregular crossings and death.
Research shows that the securitization and militarization of borders has only driven up human smuggling and risky journeys on the land and sea borders of the European Union and at the U.S.-Mexico border, which the International Organization for Migration deemed “the deadliest land crossing in the world.”
While rich countries in Europe and North America benefit from globalization and the free movement of capital, many also attempt to close their borders – administratively and physically – to people seeking safety, security and a better life. These are not evidence-based policies. They are political measures to try to reassure domestic constituencies that they are “in control.”
But controlling borders – especially one as long and geographically complex as the Canada-U.S. border – is an impossible proposition. For as long as desperation remains the driver, irregular border crossings will continue, in both directions, no matter the risk.
Last month, in keeping with its decades-long patterns, Washington budgeted US$25-billion for border control, immigration detention and deportation. But despite such spending, the U.S. is estimated to have the largest undocumented population in the world, at more than 10 million. These people are often then driven into precarious employment that can lead to exploitation.
These resources would be better invested in clearing massive immigration backlogs – another problem Canada shares with the U.S. – and in creating more legal pathways to residency and citizenship. Funding could also be redirected to supporting communities along the border that are negatively affected by increased securitization and surveillance, but are otherwise neglected and marginalized. The Kanien’kehá:ka community of Akwesasne, for instance, has to contend with colonially imposed complications associated with its territory straddling Ontario, Quebec and New York State, which makes access to services (including health care) a challenge.
By following the U.S.’s lead on migration and border policies, Canada is making a costly mistake – in terms of how it is failing to invest in solutions that address the root causes of irregular migration, but also in terms of the impact their short-sighted policy making will have on human lives.