Skip to main content

Canada is a country built on immigration, with a broad consensus that the continued robust inflow of newcomers is vital to our economy and culture.

But that consensus depends on Canadians’ belief that our immigration system is both fair and properly managed. Both notions have been tested in the last 21 months, as tens of thousands of asylum seekers have made their way into Quebec from the United States at an unauthorized port of entry.

Relatively few of them hold U.S. citizenship; almost all are people from other countries who have temporary U.S. visas but want to come to Canada.

The result, as detailed in The Globe and Mail last week, has been a significant increase in the wait times for hearings for all refugee claimants. The average wait is now 20 months, up from 14 months in the fall of 2016, just before asylum seekers began crossing the border illegally en masse.

Their ability to do so results from a loophole in Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States, which states that refugee claimants should make their case in the first safe country they arrive in. However, that rule only applies at designated border crossings, meaning migrants who slip into Canada illegally and immediately make a refugee claim are not turned back.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said these asylum seekers do not receive special treatment. He is partly correct. Once in the system, they have to wait their turn for a hearing. In any case, the Supreme Court’s 1985 Singh decision leaves the government no choice: Once a claimant is in Canada, no matter how they entered, that person is entitled to an oral hearing assessing the merits of their refugee claim.

But is it fair to other claimants – and those who would come to Canada if they could but are refused visas – that more than 27,000 people can illegally cross the border and thereby insert themselves into the queue? It is a question of particular importance, given that the data indicate that these asylum seekers are significantly less successful in obtaining refugee status than those who follow the rules.

Most of the cases have yet to be finalized, but the lower success rate for those finalized so far is consistent with the possibility that a significant proportion of the asylum seekers are economic migrants willing to try their chances in the refugee system. As more cases are heard in coming months, a better picture will emerge of the proportion of claimants who are true refugees – who genuinely fear for their safety or are escaping conflict – and those who simply wish to improve their economic lot and should apply to come to Canada from their home country.

The surge in asylum seekers is one of the more intractable problems to ever face a government. Ottawa appears to be checkmated at every turn: by the Singh ruling; by the loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement; by the vast unprotected expanses of our border; and by Canadians' expectations that our government will be compassionate.

As well, it will necessarily take time to hire and install all of the 64 new adjudicators Ottawa has budgeted for, and who may eventually help improve wait times.

At the same time, we do not think the government has addressed the issue effectively. The Trudeau Liberals have reactively dealt with the current influx and have no strategy for discouraging any future waves of asylum seekers. They have provided no reassurance that this is not the new normal for Canada.

This is a mistake. The border issue is polarizing. Allowing the perception to persist that our border is porous, and that the immigration system can be gamed, could help give rise to the right-wing, anti-immigration movements of Europe and the United States.

The world is changing. There are more people on the move than ever. The United Nations estimates there are almost 66-million refugees around the globe. At the same time, our southern neighbour has become inhospitable to immigrants and refugees.

It is not enough for Ottawa to say that its hands are tied by court rulings and treaties made in a different era. We need relevant solutions that protect the integrity of our immigration system, so that Canadians continue to support it.

The surge in border crossings may not be of the government’s making, but it is up to Ottawa to deal with it proactively and responsibly. We will suggest some solutions in an upcoming editorial.

Interact with The Globe