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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

How we might make up with our Mexican amigo Add to ...

For a country that likes to brag about a supposedly unsullied international reputation and feasts upon a moral superiority - The World Needs More Canada! - it must come as a shock to hear every political party and editorial commentator in a friendly country denouncing Canada.

Welcome to Mexico, where the decision to impose visas on all would-be travellers to Canada has been greeted with outrage across the political spectrum. Nobody in Mexico has a kind word to say about the Canadian decision, since it is rightly considered a slap in the face for a proud nation.

Mexico, NAFTA partner and one of North America's "three amigos," (to use former prime minister Jean Chrétien's expression), was the last Latin American country whose citizens did not require a visa to visit Canada.

Now, because of Canada's refugee laws and procedures, visas are being demanded of Mexicans and Czechs (to whom we add insult to injury by making visa-seekers apply not in Prague, the Czech capital, but in Vienna, the capital of Austria).

Defenders of the Canadian system shrug. For the refugee lawyers, practitioners and academics, it's all about would-be refugee claimants, bogus or otherwise, from Mexico or anywhere on the planet, who make it to Canada, including from democratic countries such as most of those in Latin America.

They don't apparently care about the expense of the refugee system, the big costs of administering a visa system, the hurt done Canada's bilateral relations, the negative effect on tourism and business, the racketeering that goes on to get people into our creaky system. Foreign policy, economic considerations and reputational damage count for naught.

Just to make things really hard for Mexicans, Canadian consulates in Mexico won't issue visas. Only the embassy in Mexico City can, and it is overwhelmed. About 250,000 Mexicans come to Canada each year. Some of them will now give up. That's great news for the beleaguered Canadian tourism industry.

Mexico had become in recent years the No. 1 country for refugee claimants. The numbers went from 3,400 in 2005 to 9,400 in 2008, and 5,500 in the first six months of 2009 - about 10 per cent were deemed admissible. (The IRB approval rate for all other refugees was 56 per cent.)

Mexican claimants knew a scam, or a chance, when they saw one, because unscrupulous agencies in Mexico urged them - and often charged them - to try their luck with the Canadian system.

If they failed, well, they could always return to Mexico, albeit somewhat out of pocket; or, like others in the system, they could just drop out of sight and join the illegals who escape Canada's leaky deportation system. The odds weren't exactly win-win, but they weren't lose-lose either.

Mexico proposed ideas to the Harper government to forestall visas. The Mexicans suggested immigration preclearance by Canadian officials of flights from Mexico bound for Canada. They wanted information about where the refugees were coming from in order to target efforts to stop people, but were told apparently, and if so inexplicably, that this information was "private." They suggested cracking down on firms peddling bogus information about becoming a refugee in Canada.

To no avail. Canada waited until after the recent congressional elections in Mexico, then lowered the boom.

The visas are in place, and the Harper government has promised changes to the refugee-determination process, having to its credit now filled the vacancies on the Immigration and Refugee Board. We wait to see the changes.

In the meantime, Canada should do something, if not totally to repair relations then at least to offer something useful and tangible to Mexico.

Mexico is gripped by a terrible drug war; indeed, many of the refugee claimants insist they are fleeing for their lives from this war between the government and drug cartels.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has thrown the army into the war. The drug cartels are brutal. They kill, kidnap or threaten those who get in their way. They bribe officials - police, municipal officers, senior government officials - for protection and information. One of their favourite tricks - reminiscent of one of Islamic terrorists' favourites - is to throw the severed heads of their victims into a public place.

The drug trade extends north to Canada, where Mexican kingpins and traders make common cause with opposite numbers here. Mexican drugs wind up on Canadian streets; Mexican drug syndicates have their allies in Canada.

The week after next, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is due in Guadalajara for a meeting with Mr. Calderon and U.S. President Barack Obama.

There, Mr. Harper could announce, having discussed this privately beforehand with the Mexicans, significant Canadian help to Mexico in that drug war: RCMP personnel, training of Mexican police, equipment where needed, money for a fund the Americans have already established to help Mexico fight this plague.

Such an approach might ease the sting of the visas, help Mexico a bit, and do ourselves a favour too. It would also show a little creativity in foreign policy.

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