Hélène Gravel’s house sits on Roxham Road near Canada’s most famous illegal border crossing, used by migrants leaving the United States to seek asylum up north. She has watched with increasing frustration as a bitter winter has failed to stanch record inflows and as New York City even began buying bus tickets for migrants headed her way.
“There’s no political will to fix this,” Gravel, 77, said in her driveway, a stone’s throw from the border.
“Canada is soft,” she said, adding that asylum-seekers should be processed at official border crossings. “And the United States doesn’t care because this is nothing compared with what’s happening on their southern border.”
Although the numbers of migrants at the southern border of the United States are far higher, the numbers entering Canada are also surging.
Nearly 40,000 migrants crossed unlawfully into the country last year — more than double the number in 2019 — and the number arriving monthly has spiked recently, including almost 5,000 people in January.
Facing labor shortages, Canada is actually opening its doors much wider to legal migrants and recently committed itself to significantly raise the number of legal immigrants and accept 1.5 million newcomers by 2025.
But an extraordinary pandemic-era movement of migrants across the world, fueled by economic misery and growing insecurity in many countries, has put Canada in an unusual position.
Shielded by geography, strict immigration policies favoring the educated and skilled, and its single border with the United States, Canada is now being forced to deal with an issue that has long bedeviled other wealthy Western nations: mass illegal border crossings by land.
Using the kind of anti-migrant language rarely heard in Canada, opposition politicians are calling on the government to deploy the police to shut down the Roxham Road crossing and said that Quebec, the province absorbing many of the migrants entering illegally, “is not an all-inclusive” vacation “package.”
The surge in asylum-seekers from around the world — who are entering Canada illegally through the United States — is also complicating a planned visit to Canada in March by President Joe Biden, as he and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both face increasing domestic pressure to deal with unlawful migration at their borders.
François Legault, the premier of Quebec, and opposition politicians are pressing Trudeau not just to close Roxham Road. They also want him to renegotiate a 2004 treaty with the United States that they say has fueled illegal crossings. Canada’s highest court is expected to rule on the treaty’s constitutionality this summer.
At Roxham Road, migrants are warned by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers that they will be arrested and charged with unlawfully entering Canada.
But once charged, they are quickly released.
Usually after a few months, they can start working and receiving health care and other social benefits in Canada while their applications are processed. Many migrants are sheltered at government-paid hotels for extended periods, and children are enrolled in public schools.
Trudeau, who has spoken loftily about welcoming refugees in the past, has toughened his stance recently by stating explicitly that the federal government is working on renegotiating the treaty and will raise the issue when he meets with Biden. His shift in tone comes as the Biden administration announced a renewed crackdown on migrants crossing illegally into the United States.
Experts say it is not in the Biden administration’s interest to change the treaty, which could lead to more asylum claimants in the United States. The US ambassador to Canada, David L Cohen, expressed skepticism about renegotiating the agreement in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the public broadcaster.
With complaints mounting that Quebec was unfairly shouldering the cost of taking care of asylum-seekers, the federal government has transferred thousands of them to communities in the neighboring province of Ontario, where local officials are now also protesting that they are overwhelmed.
“The reality of global migration in the 21st century is catching up with us,” said Karine Côté-Boucher, a sociologist and expert on borders at the University of Montreal. “Irregular migration is new to us, and it’s a shock for everyone.”
Under a treaty between Canada and the United States called the Safe Third Country Agreement, asylum-seekers from a third country must file their applications in the United States if they arrive there first — or in Canada if that is their first point of landing.
So asylum-seekers trying to enter Canada from the United States at official border crossings are refused entry and returned to the United States.
But the same agreement also contains a loophole that allows asylum-seekers to cross illegally into Canada, at Roxham Road or any other unofficial border crossing, and apply in Canada — even though they were in the United States first.
Of the 81,418 people who have crossed illegally into Canada since February 2017, 37 per cent had their applications approved. A little more than 34 per cent were rejected, abandoned or withdrew their applications. The applications of 28 per cent are still pending.
The treaty rests on the premise that both the United States and Canada process refugee claims in accordance with international refugee laws. . - The New York Times
The writer is a Japanese Canadian journalist