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Canada needs immigrants. Canada needs secure borders. These may sound like contradictory claims; they are not. They go hand-in-hand.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Trudeau Liberals have abruptly woken up to this reality. They’ve started talks with the United States to close a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement that allows people who enter Canada at irregular border crossings to make a refugee claim, rather than being turned away. They also introduced legislation – buried in an omnibus budget bill – to make anyone who has filed an asylum claim in the United States and several other countries ineligible to do so in Canada.

The target is the influx of migrants at Roxham Road. Over the past two years, about 40,000 people have walked across the Canada-U.S. border, most on a street that dead-ends where New York stops and Quebec starts. These people are not illegal immigrants; the vast majority willingly surrender to authorities so that they can make an asylum claim, giving them legal status in Canada, including the right to work for as long as it takes an extremely slow and backlogged refugee system to decide on the merits of their claim.

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Our refugee system is generous, but it’s also very slow-moving. And it’s breaking down and losing public confidence under the strain of too many people trying to use it. Many appear to be travelling to the United States on tourist visas for the purpose of making a refugee claim in Canada.

The Liberals’ latest steps to address this risk is damaging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s brand. His government is now doing something that it spent the past three years attacking the Conservatives for even talking about. But though it’s out of sync with the Trudeau government’s previous rhetoric, it’s in line with how Canadian governments of all stripes have dealt with immigration over the past few decades.

Under a series of administrations, Liberal, Progressive Conservative and Conservative, the vast majority of immigrants – whether economic migrants, family-reunification arrivals or refugees – have always been chosen from overseas and only entered Canada after having been vetted. It has been immigration by choice – Canada’s choice.

That’s true, for example, of the influx of Syrian refugees into Canada early in the Trudeau government’s mandate. They chose Canada, but first Canada chose them.

Next to its open immigration door, Canada has long had bureaucratic walls and moats. Canadian governments have consistently taken steps, most of which go largely unnoticed by Canadians, to make it extremely difficult for anyone to come to Canada if there is a risk that person may attempt to remain in the country, whether as an illegal immigrant or as an asylum-seeker.

That’s mostly been about making it very difficult to get to Canadian soil and gain access to the Canadian legal system. To take just one example, a 2017 World Economic Forum survey of travel and tourism professionals ranked Canada as one of the worst countries in the world – 120th out of 136 – for the restrictiveness of visitor visa requirements. But that’s not a bug of Canada’s visa system. It’s a feature.

Compared with our southern neighbour, Canada is a high-immigration country. That’s long been true. Relative to population, Canada takes in roughly three times as many legal immigrants as the United States. And while the number of foreign-born American residents recently hit a high of 13.5 per cent, at no time since the 1901 has Canada’s level of foreign-born residents been that low. Today, 21.9 per cent of Canadians were born overseas.

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Compared with our southern neighbour, Canada has also always had low levels of irregular, unauthorized, unexpected and illegal immigration. Washington doesn’t even know how many illegal immigrants the country has; estimates range from 10.7-million to 22-million to nearly 30-million.

That has poisoned the American immigration debate, and made rational immigration discussions almost impossible.

For a growing number of voters and politicians on the American right, all immigration, legal or illegal, is seen as a threat. For a large number of their opponents on the left, any distinction between legal and illegal immigrants is similarly rejected. Talk of higher legal immigration is unacceptable on the American right; talk of lower illegal immigration is unacceptable on the left.

For Canadians, it should be a cautionary tale.

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