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Canada in ‘exploratory’ talks with U.S. over border agreement on asylum seekers

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill last Thursday.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada is in high-level exploratory talks with the United States over a border agreement to manage asylum seekers, but will not say whether Ottawa wants the power to automatically turn away thousands of refugee claimants who walk across the border.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed it is reviewing a Canadian proposal to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), which requires Canada and the United States to refuse entry to asylum seekers who arrive at official ports of entry along the shared border, as both countries are considered safe for refugees. However, senior Canadian cabinet ministers insisted they have not entered into formal negotiations with the United States.

“It’s a discussion that we’re having with the Americans about the various techniques that could be pursued on both sides of the border to ensure security and integrity,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said on Tuesday. “If and when that conversation matures into a specific negotiation, we’ll have further things to say about it. But this is very exploratory at the moment – scoping issues and potential solutions.”

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Concerns over the agreement, which was signed in 2004, surfaced last year when thousands of asylum seekers fled the United States for Canada on foot, fearing deportation under President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown. Since the agreement applies only to those who arrive at official ports of entry, asylum seekers can avoid being immediately turned away by crossing between border posts, forcing Canada to process most of their claims.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen did not confirm a Reuters report on Tuesday that the government wants the agreement to apply to the entire Canada-U.S. border. Mr. Hussen said Ottawa is in regular contact with the United States about the agreement, but declined to get into details.

“As you can appreciate, we constantly talk about all aspects of the border, including the Safe Third Country Agreement,” Mr. Hussen said. “Those are discussions that are ongoing, so I can’t take a snapshot in time and give you what was discussed on a particular day.”

The RCMP intercepted more than 20,000 asylum claimants in 2017, 91 per cent of whom crossed in Quebec. Many entered at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle after taking taxis along upstate New York’s Roxham Road.

The Mounties intercepted more than 5,000 asylum claimants in the first three months of 2018 – again, mostly in Quebec.

The Conservatives have urged the government to close the loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement that allows asylum seekers to enter Canada at unofficial border crossings. Last week, the Tories tabled a motion in the House of Commons calling on the Liberals to table a plan by May 11.

“Last week, Justin Trudeau voted against taking immediate action and tabling a plan to manage our borders and immigration system,” Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said in a statement on Tuesday. “Conservatives will continue to hold the Prime Minister accountable, and call for the entire Canada-U.S. border to be designated as an official port of entry.”

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Mr. Goodale said the Conservative proposal is “impractical,” as it would “change the entire concept about what the border means” and “increase insecurity at the border.”

As the Liberals iron out their approach to STCA talks with the United States, they are touting their efforts to prevent more asylum seekers from crossing into Canada. For instance, Mr. Hussen said many of those crossing into Quebec earlier this year were Nigerians carrying valid U.S. visitor visas. Canadian officials raised the issue with their U.S. counterparts, and the number of U.S. visas issued to Nigerians dropped.

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