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A family of asylum seekers from Colombia is met by an RCMP officer after crossing the border at Roxham Road into Canada on Feb. 9 in Champlain, New York. A day after Quebec confirmed that asylum seekers who cross the border irregularly are being sent to other provinces, Premier Francois Legault called on the prime minister to discourage migrants from coming to Canada.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

On the day that Quebec Immigration Minister Christine Fréchette celebrated the mass relocation of Roxham Road migrants to Ontario, her boss, Premier François Legault, told reporters he couldn’t understand why the U.S. wasn’t willing to take border-crossers back.

He met U.S. Ambassador David Cohen on Tuesday, and then said he doesn’t know why the U.S. won’t change a border agreement so people who enter Canada at Roxham Road, an unofficial crossing between Quebec and New York State, can be returned to the U.S.

“I said to him, I don’t understand why it is taking so long to settle with the United States.”

Mr. Legault is an intelligent politician, so he must be deliberately playing dumb.

He knows the relief that government leaders feel when their intractable problem becomes someone else’s. Ms. Fréchette said the Quebec government was “very happy” that 372 of the 380 people who crossed into Canada at Roxham Road since Saturday had been relocated outside Quebec.

Surely Mr. Legault must have a clue as to why the U.S. government isn’t rushing to solve Canada’s Roxham Road issue.

The U.S. position is not an accident. It has for decades resisted doing what Canada wants it to do on this file.

To be clear, Quebec is right to want some of the migrants, many of whom will seek asylum, to be relocated. The RCMP intercepted 39,171 people entering Canada at Roxham Road in 2022, and the province, and especially Montreal, complained their capacity to settle people was strained. The border is Canada’s responsibility, not just Montreal’s, or Quebec’s.

And certainly, it would be easier on all levels of government in Canada if the United States just took all those people back. But it has resisted.

Politicians shouldn’t act as though getting the U.S. to change should be a snap. Justin Trudeau’s government has hinted a deal might be coming, but we might want to see it before we believe it. You’d have to think there would be some serious quid pro quo. It isn’t the Americans’ border problem.

There was a period in the pandemic when the U.S. did accept people back, in theory temporarily, when both countries closed their borders. Not many people tried to cross at Roxham Road. But the U.S. ended that arrangement in November, 2021. People started crossing there again.

There was a long history before that. At one time, asylum-seekers could simply show up at any official border crossing and claim refugee status in Canada. But as the numbers grew in the 1990s, Ottawa tried and fail to make a deal. The U.S. declined. It was only after the 9/11 attacks, in a broad border pact, that the U.S. accepted a Safe Third Country Agreement that allowed Canada to return asylum-seekers who arrived via the U.S. to make their claim there.

But it only applied at official border posts, and for a pretty simple reason: The United States wanted it that way. It didn’t want the trouble of accepting people who might show up anywhere along the long border with Canada.

The agreement was always opposed by refugee advocates, but from the start there was also a concern that it would encourage people to cross the border in illicit places. Jason Kenney has said he tried to convince the U.S. to change it when he was immigration minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, to no avail.

Fast forward to now, when Roxham Road has become a well-travelled route, and the U.S. still isn’t itching to change it. And we shouldn’t be surprised, when the hottest political issue in the U.S. is illegal entries across the Mexican border, that the U.S. is not racing to stop 40,000 people from leaving.

If the U.S. did apply the Safe Third Country Agreement outside official border crossings, it would shut down Roxham Road, but more people would cross at the many other locations along the boundary.

Taking them all back would require more work and more patrols along the Canadian border when the U.S. devotes its resources to the Mexican boundary. The U.S. Border Patrol has 2,073 agents along the northern boundary, compared to 16,070 agents at the southern border – whose patrols logged more than a million “encounters” with border crossers in 2022.

And U.S. President Joe Biden couldn’t expect to be celebrated for making a deal with Canada that prevents tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from leaving the U.S. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat like Mr. Biden, has been giving asylum-seekers bus tickets to get to Roxham Road. No one should be surprised the U.S. isn’t jumping to “solve” this Canadian problem.

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