Canada and the United States waited a year to announce a new deal to turn asylum seekers away at unofficial border crossings, such as Roxham Road between Quebec and New York, to avoid a rush of migrants before the new rules could be enforced, the two countries said Sunday.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen said it would not have served either country to disclose a deal until the planning process was complete and updated regulations were in effect. The goal was to have “an orderly transition,” he said.
Mr. Cohen said the governments feared that a premature announcement “would stimulate a large influx of migrants trying to get to Canada before that change went into place.”
“It was not in Canada’s interest to create that artificial surge of people trying to enter the country.”
On Friday, during President Joe Biden’s visit to Canada, he and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that they had renegotiated the Safe Third Country Agreement, with the revised deal taking effect within hours. The changes meant that the two countries could start turning away asylum seekers whether they entered at official or unofficial border points.
Originally, the Safe Third Country Agreement, prevented people arriving via the U.S. from making asylum claims at official Canadian border crossings, but it didn’t cover unofficial ones.
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Behind the scenes, the countries had already signed the deal a year earlier, in spring 2022, but the regulations that would put it into effect and allow its enforcement were only completed Wednesday, according to a document published by the U.S. government.
In the months leading up to the announcement, Canada had significantly played down the possibility of reaching an agreement with the United States. Only when Mr. Biden’s arrival in the capital on Thursday was imminent did that message change.
An administration official said changes to existing accords, such as the Safe Third Country Agreement, are subject to complicated and uncertain administrative reviews that can last two to three years after a deal is struck. Given the unknowns around implementation and the risks of people trying to get to the border before a deal was in place, the two governments only wanted to disclose the deal when it could go into effect.
Ottawa shared similar concerns about the risks of pre-emptively announcing the renegotiated deal, a federal government official told The Globe Sunday. Moreover, the individual said that Ottawa’s view was that it wasn’t a done deal until it had gone through the regulatory process. They said that within the past few weeks, the federal government had still been lobbying for an accelerated administrative review from the U.S. and it was only assured last week of its completion.
The Globe is not identifying the U.S. and Canadian officials because they were not permitted to disclose the private deliberations.
Applying the Safe Third Country Agreement uniformly across the border has been a top priority for Mr. Trudeau’s government, which has been under increasing pressure from the federal Conservatives and Quebec Premier François Legault to stem the flow of migrants at Roxham Road.
Last year, almost 40,000 people crossed into Canada at unofficial border points to make an asylum claim. Most of them arrived at Roxham Road. Smaller but growing numbers of migrants have been crossing the border in the other direction, from Canada to the U.S. They have primarily been Mexican nationals, who can enter Canada without visas.
But the much more pressing issue for the U.S. is its southern border, where between 100,000 and 200,000 migrants cross at unofficial border points each month. In a nod to the significant challenges the U.S. faces with migration from Central America, Canada on Friday also announced it would accept 15,000 more migrants from that region through legal channels.
Officials from both governments said Canada’s pledge of 15,000 more spots spurred the implementation of the renegotiated Safe Third Country Agreement.
In a joint statement, the U.S. and Canada on Friday said the changes will deter irregular migration across the border. But advocates say it will only make the situation even more precarious for asylum seekers. That’s because it risks pushing migrants to more dangerous and irregular routes and makes them more vulnerable to exploitation from traffickers.
By noon Sunday, the Canada Border Services Agency said that under the new rules, two people had been returned to the U.S. and four were deemed eligible to make an asylum claim in Canada.
Amid the suite of issues highlighted during Mr. Biden’s official visit, was Canada’s promised spending to modernize North America’s air defences. Ahead of the trip, the U.S. had said it wanted Canada to spend more and faster on its defence upgrades.
Canada’s lagging defence spending and slow procurement processes have frequently been a point of contention with the United States. On Sunday though, Mr. Cohen said the U.S. is “generally satisfied” with the federal government’s progress.
He noted that Ottawa agreed to accelerate the installation of next-generation over-the-horizon radar in the north; committed to base upgrades in time for the arrival of new F-35 fighter jets; and reiterated its commitment to raise defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP.
Mr. Cohen also noted that Canada is in the midst of a national defence policy review, during which the U.S. is receiving classified briefings on the government’s progress.
“There’s a real satisfaction that Canada is moving in the right direction,” he said.