Why Canada won't tighten border security despite an uptick in illegal immigration

Several hundred people have crossed into Canada from the United States since the beginning of the year. But that increase isn't enough to warrant additional border security, officials say. 

Christinne Muschi/Reuters
A man is confronted by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer as he prepares to cross the US-Canada border leading into Hemmingford, Quebec, on March 5, 2017.

Despite an uptick in illegal immigration in recent months, Canada won't be tightening its border security anytime soon. 

Several hundred people have illegally crossed into Canada from the United States since the beginning of the year, officials say, with much of the activity taking place in the weeks immediately following President Trump's controversial executive order temporarily barring refugees and citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. 

Canadian and US government officials are working to find a way to handle the recent influx of asylum seekers, with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly expected to visit Canada later this month to discuss border security. But for now, said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale on Saturday, the increase isn't enough to warrant additional border security measures.

"We are concerned and we will deal properly with the extra hundreds," said Mr. Goodale said at a news conference in Emerson, located near the North Dakota border. "But the full border deals with 400,000 people moving in both directions every day. It also handles (more than $1 trillion) in trade every day." 

At least 183 people have walked across the border in freezing temperatures since Jan. 1, according to Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Manitoba.  

But "the current accelerated rate started in the first week of February," Goodale said Saturday. "[W]e’ve been following this very, very closely."

The 2016 presidential campaign elicited warnings – sometimes serious, sometimes lighthearted – from scores of Trump opponents vowing to move north in the event of a Trump victory. In the days following the election, Canadian real estate brokers reported a surge in interest from American homebuyers – and some disappointed voters have already followed through on their promises to relocate. But the majority of those crossing over illegally, experts say, are not disgruntled American citizens, but anxious refugees and undocumented immigrants seeking asylum. 

The campaign rhetoric and election victory of Trump, who said on "60 Minutes" in November that he planned to deport or incarcerate "2 million or 3 million" undocumented immigrants with a criminal record upon taking office, led many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to fear for their future. More than 1,200 people entered Quebec illegally and requested refugee status in 2016 – nearly five times the total in 2015, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. More people requested refugee status this past November alone than throughout all of the previous year. 

That surge, immigrant rights advocates say, saw a greater increase with the signing of Trump's now-frozen travel ban blocking refugees and citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries. 

"A comment that we might hear is that they’re scared of what’s happening in the US," Rita Chahal of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council told The Guardian in February. "A couple of people have said they watched what happened in the airports last weekend, they were afraid. They’re afraid that they might get put in detention, they might get deported, that their applications won’t be accepted, so they express a lot of fear." 

One reason why crossing illegally is so appealing, experts say, is the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement. Under this agreement, established in 2004, a person who is in the US, which is considered a safe country, cannot request to be admitted into Canada as a refugee. But those who request refugee status once they are already on Canadian soil –  and are able to pass criminal checks – will be allowed to have their cases considered. 

The process to apply for refugee status is considerably quicker than the process in the United States. Anyone caught trying to cross the Canadian border can apply for refugee status. The applicant will then receive a date to appear before a refugee tribunal, which by law cannot be more than two months away. In the meantime, there is no need to wait in a detention center – unlike in the United States – and anyone put in detention has the right to see a judge within 24 hours.

Typically, about 60 percent of immigrants who go before the tribunal are granted asylum, but chances partly depend on the country of origin, Melissa Anderson, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, told Public Radio International (PRI) last month. Citizens of Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea have an acceptance rate of more than 80 percent and are not required to appear before the refugee tribunal in person. Members of the Roma minority from Romania and Hungary are also usually accepted. 

Public Safety Minister Goodale's comments on Saturday underscore remarks made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau less than two weeks ago, in which he told parliament that Canada would continue to accept asylum seekers crossing illegally from the US while ensuring security measures were taken to keep Canadian citizens safe. 

"One of the reasons why Canada remains an open country is Canadians trust our immigration system and the integrity of our borders and the help we provide people who are looking for safety," Mr. Trudeau said, as reported by Reuters. "We will continue to strike that balance between a rigorous system and accepting people who need help."

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