There’s no easy solution to Canada’s border problem

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The latest spate of asylum seekers crossing the border over dirt paths in Quebec has once again sparked some, including Conservative politicians, to ask why Ottawa doesn’t press Washington to allow those people to be turned back to the United States.

There is, after all, a deal in place with the Americans that allows Canadian border guards to turn back asylum seekers who arrive at official border crossings from the United States – but not in between them. Many have called for the Canadian government to close that “loophole.”

But the Americans don’t want to close it. They don’t want to go through a lot of trouble to stop migrants from leaving the United States. It’s time to stop thinking there are easy, wave-of-the-pen solutions for Canada’s border problem.

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Donald Trump won’t jump in: His immigration crackdown is encouraging people to walk into Canada. And for a peek at his sentiments, just look at the recently leaked transcript of a phone call between President Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr. Trump used the call to berate the Australian leader about an Obama-era agreement that calls for the United States to resettle 1,250 asylum seekers detained while trying to get to Australia.

Mr. Trump didn’t grasp, and didn’t even care about, Mr. Turnbull’s case for why the Australian program would reduce the flow of asylum seekers on people smugglers’ boats. After all his campaign rhetoric about a Muslim ban and extreme vetting, he said accepting those people would make him “look like a dope.”

“I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Turnbull. The U.S. President won’t help other countries with migrant flows by taking people off their hands.

So those demanding that Canada strike a new deal with Washington to close the border “loophole” – as Conservatives did throughout the leadership race that ended in May – can save their breath.

Jason Kenney, who is running for the leadership of Alberta’s new United Conservative Party, told The Globe and Mail’s Laura Stone last week that the Liberal government should renegotiate the safe-third-country deal. But he also admitted that when he was the federal immigration minister, Obama administration officials refused.

Before 2003, asylum seekers often came through the United States to Canada. But after 9/11, the two countries signed several border-management agreements, including a “safe-third-country” agreement that stipulates if someone arrives at an official Canadian border post and claims refugee status, they can be turned back to make their claim in the United States. But the Americans didn’t want to agree to take back anyone who managed to sneak into Canada elsewhere.

That means anyone who crosses the border through a field or a across a dirt path can claim refugee status, and have their claim heard. That loophole has always been there. It’s just that more people are using it lately.

Mr. Trump’s immigration crackdown is one reason. That sparked a number of Somalis living in Minnesota to cross into Manitoba last winter. Now many Haitians who fear they will be sent home when a U.S. moratorium on deportations ends in January are coming to Quebec’s border, reportedly encouraged by false info on social media that suggests they will automatically be allowed to stay.

What to do? Conservative MP Michelle Rempel issued a press release calling for Mr. Trudeau to “take action” – but tellingly, she didn’t specify what kind.

Some suggest suspending the safe-third-country agreement, because people will at least cross the border at official entry points if they can make a refugee claim there. But history suggests that will lead to a major increase in people travelling through the United States to seek refugee status in Canada – especially with Mr. Trump cracking down on migrants from Mexico.

There’s really two ways to discourage the flow. You can make the lives of border crossers rougher, by locking them up. But that means locking up desperate families.

Or you can speed the processing of refugee claims, either through reform or extra funding, so that people without valid claims are returned home quickly – in theory, that might discourage those who aren’t bona fide refugees. Right now, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are hoping this latest flow of asylum seekers will subside. After Mr. Trudeau’s words about refugees being welcome, they don’t want to act tough. And there just aren’t simple solutions: Certainly, Canada can’t expect Mr. Trump’s help.