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Politics Conservative plan to get Trump to make a new deal muddies the waters around Canada’s asylum-seekers policy

Where once Justin Trudeau tweeted that refugees were #WelcometoCanada, now the government posts videos telling potential asylum seekers their chances of getting into this country are slim.

The Liberal government cannot stop the flow of people who enter Canada at makeshift crossings, such as the one at Roxham Road in upstate New York, hoping to claim asylum. So it’s trying to talk people out of it, and talk the numbers down.

But that’s short-term management. Asylum seekers now know irregular crossings are a way to get into Canada to make a claim. It’s no longer temporary.

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And one symbolic policy question Canadian politicians have to confront is this: Are you willing to make a deal with Donald Trump on asylum seekers?

Related: Ontario, federal government battle over resettling migrants

Read more: Wave of asylum seekers floods Toronto’s shelters

Michelle Rempel, the Calgary MP and Conservative immigration critic, thinks it is time to do just that – to assert Canada’s right to turn back asylum seekers coming through the United States and push the President to make a deal – after all, he demands the same kind of control for his southern border with Mexico.

But that would surely be controversial. Mr. Trump was elected on promises of a border wall and Muslim bans, and his now-changed policy of separating children from detained parents was widely seen as cruel.

Ms. Rempel tweeted her opposition to that – but also that Canada needed to do more to discourage people from overwhelming its asylum system. She wants Canada to change its rules so that the asylum seekers can be turned back.

Asylum seekers who identified themselves as being from Haiti wait to enter into Canada from Roxham Road in Champlain, N.Y. (File Photo).

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

But, like it or not, Mr. Trump is still key. The United States does not have to take non-Americans back. And the idea of doing a deal with Mr. Trump colours this issue.

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Ms. Rempel argues there’s a “perfect opportunity” to get U.S. help to control the flow of asylum seekers. The NDP argues we should tear up the agreement we already have, because Mr. Trump has made his country unsafe for asylum seekers. The Liberal government is not doing either.

The key is the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) signed in 2002. When people arrive at a border post to claim asylum, it allows either country to refuse them on the grounds they were already in a safe country. But the deal applies at official border posts only, so those who cross at places such as Roxham Road are allowed into Canada to make their refugee claim.

That so-called “loophole” has always existed. It started to be used in big numbers only last year, when 20,593 crossed “irregularly.” Now that it is used commonly, it will keep on being used.

Ms. Rempel has previously said Canada should declare the whole border an official crossing point so the STCA would apply to everyone. But such trickery might lead the United States to tear up the deal – it was Canada that wanted it.

Last week, Ms. Rempel tweeted that Canada could change its own regulations to allow border agents to turn irregular border crossers back. And it can. But the United States still does not have to accept them.

Ms. Rempel is essentially arguing that Canada push the issue – and push Mr. Trump to change the agreement. The Obama administration refused to do that, but Ms. Rempel said Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have never really tried with Mr. Trump.

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“This is the perfect opportunity,” she said. She noted some U.S. politicians have complained Canada has a porous border. If Canada asserted its right to return asylum seekers, Ms. Rempel said, it could then say, “Look, you’ve allowed people into our country by not managing your end of border security. How can you talk about border security on our side if you can’t get the job done?”

It’s not clear that Mr. Trump would make a deal. It’s probably not a good idea to ask for favours with the North American free-trade agreement in the balance.

But Ms. Rempel says that one reason Mr. Trudeau is not willing to push the STCA is that it’s off-brand for a leader who tweeted #WelcomeToCanada. And that’s probably partly true. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals want the border-crosser issue to go away, but you can bet they are not itching to make an immigration deal with the President. One thing that clearly divides Canada’s political parties at the border is the idea of doing a deal with Mr. Trump.

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