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Immigration Minister declines to say whether Ottawa will seek power to turn away U.S. border-crossers

The Immigration Minister is refusing to say whether the federal government will seek the power to automatically turn away thousands of refugee claimants who walk across the border under an asylum agreement with the United States.

Speaking to the House of Commons during a marathon session on Thursday night, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen faced repeated questions from the opposition on the government’s position on the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. The pact requires Canada and the United States to refuse entry to asylum seekers who arrive at official border crossings, as both countries are considered safe for refugees.

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen stands during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 24, 2018.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

However, since the agreement applies only to people who arrive at official ports of entry, asylum seekers can avoid being turned away by crossing between border posts – a loophole tens of thousands of asylum seekers have used to gain access to Canada since last year. Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel asked the minister whether the government will deem the entire border an official port of entry so it can refuse border-crossers.

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“Transforming the whole border into a port of entry would be impractical in terms of providing border and immigration services along its entire length, which is 9,000 kilometres,” Mr. Hussen said.

However, he refused to say definitively whether the proposal was off the table in continuing high-level talks with the United States on the agreement. NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan − whose party supports the suspension of the agreement in order to allow people to claim asylum at official ports of entry − repeatedly demanded a ”yes or no” answer from the minister.

“The minister refuses to answer the question,” Ms. Kwan said.

Over a series of short and pointed questions, Ms. Rempel asked Mr. Hussen whether he would take responsibility for the surge in asylum seekers.

“The loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement needs to be closed. Will the minister take responsibility for the erosion of social licence for immigration in this country because of his inability to maintain a planned, orderly migration system?” Ms. Rempel asked.

Mr. Hussen stood by his talking points during the back and forth.

The RCMP intercepted more than 7,600 asylum seekers along the entire Canada-U.S. border from January to April this year – nearly three times as many as the same period in 2017; the majority arrived through Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que. Nigerians have made up more than half of the asylum seekers this year, with 75 per cent of them carrying valid U.S. visas.

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Mr. Hussen outlined the government’s efforts over the past few months to reach out to more than 600 stakeholders in an effort to correct misinformation about Canada’s immigration system. As a part of those efforts, the minister recently travelled to Nigeria, where he received assurances that the government would discourage its citizens from using the United States as a transit point to cross into Canada and claim asylum.

Meanwhile, border and customs agents are being pulled from the Greater Toronto Area to handle a “significant” influx of asylum seekers across the U.S. border into Quebec over the summer months. The move is expected to lead to delays for travellers embarking from overseas and U.S. flights at Toronto’s Pearson International airport – the country’s busiest airport – and at land-border crossings in southern Ontario.

One day after The Globe and Mail reported on the border-agent reassignments, the federal government said it would hire a record number of students to work at Canadian airports this summer as staff are temporarily reassigned to Quebec.

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