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opinion

Whatever their other troubles, the Liberals appear to have avoided an election-defining crisis at the border. Officials have contained a situation that only a year ago threatened to spiral out of control. And now a more durable solution to the problem of irregular border crossings may be at hand.

We still don’t know what might come this summer, what group of temporary U.S. residents might decide their odds of not being deported would improve if they came here rather than stayed there. And the fact remains this new stream of immigrants is now an entrenched fact of life.

But at least the federal government has stabilized the situation and is working with the Americans on an enduring fix. File the border issue, at least for now, under “could have been worse.”

Just to remind: Under the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States, the claims of people seeking asylum in Canada at border crossings from the United States are usually rejected, because the U.S. is considered a safe place for refugees.

In 2017, claimants began coming into Canada at places other than regular crossings, exploiting a loophole in the agreement. Somalis and then Haitians dominated the flow. Once detained by the RCMP, they claimed asylum, which meant they could remain in Canada while they waited for their case to be heard.

The hostility of the Trump administration toward asylum seekers turned a trickle into a flood. By the end of the year, the RCMP had intercepted 20,593 irregular crossers. And as 2018 got under way, the year-over-year numbers increased. Three times as many people made claims in April, 2018, as in April, 2017. This time, many of the crossers were coming to Canada from Nigeria by way of the United States.

Gradually, however, the government managed to stem the flow, in part by convincing the Americans to stop issuing visas to many Nigerian applicants. By December, the year-over-year numbers were down by a third. Last month, they were down by almost half.

In the budget released Tuesday, the Liberal government committed $1.2-billion over five years to improve border security and speed the processing of claims, along with legislation that aims to “better manage, discourage and prevent irregular migration," though there was no information on what that legislation may look like. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Mississauga on Thursday that most Canadians continue to favour immigration, though he acknowledged the issue has become “politically charged.”

Anything might happen this summer, such as a new group fearful of being deported from the United States that decides to make their way to Canada. But for now, the situation at the border could best be described as chronic rather than acute.

And as my colleague Michelle Zilio reports, Canada and the United States are in talks that would modify the Safe Third Party Agreement so that police could escort people crossing the border to a checkpoint, where their application for entry would then be denied.

Will Canada and the United States ever conclude such an agreement? “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said.

She remains unimpressed with a Liberal approach that continues to see hundreds of people crossing the border every month. The trendline may be down, at least temporarily, but the fact remains that there were only about a thousand fewer border-crossers in 2018 than in 2017.

“What they’ve done is normalize the situation,” Ms. Rempel said in an interview.

It’s a fair point. Canadians should never accept, as a matter of course, that customs and security forces do not have control over the southern border, that people fearing deportation from the United States can come here and make asylum claims by exploiting a legal loophole. That’s just wrong.

But if the situation is far from ideal, it’s also a lot better than it was. Which is why the border is unlikely to be a major election issue, after all.