“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” In hindsight, this tweet by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017 was ill-advised. It was written in response to Trump’s executive order banning refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. Critics point to it as the trigger for a surge of asylum-seekers at the Canadian border.
If it were true that people were escaping to Canada from the US because they feared being deported under Trump’s harsh immigration policies, then the flow of immigrants heading north would have slowed when President Biden took office. According to government data, in the period between the tweet going out and the pandemic, which slowed crossings to a trickle, almost 60,000 people made “irregular border crossings” into Canada. But afterwards, the influx returned, reaching over 20,000 in 2022, Biden’s first year in office. By February of this year, more than 10,000 people had already crossed over into Canada.
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Nor were refugees put off America by President Trump. Since 2020, the number of migrants going the other way — crossing into the US from Canada — has also shot up. Last year, Homeland Security apprehended more than 100,000 migrants crossing from Canada. (For context, in 2018 US authorities arrested only 558 people on the northern border.) There is no end in sight to these “irregular crossings”, and the public has been expressing its dissatisfaction with lax immigration controls on both sides of the border.
According to the two nations’ Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), which has been in effect since 2004, refugees have to apply for status in the first “safe country” they reach. So, they cannot apply for asylum in Canada at official border crossings with the US. However, a loophole in the agreement enables migrants crossing at unofficial border points to claim asylum after they cross. And along the 9,000km-long border, there are many places to do so, the most infamous being Roxham Road, where New York state meets Quebec.
That is, until March 25, when Roxham Road was shut down by the Canadian government. Trudeau made the announcement on the afternoon of March 24, and the policy took effect at 12:01am the next day: “To address irregular migration, we are expanding the Safe Third Country Agreement to apply not only at designated ports of entry, but across the entire land border, including internal waterways, ensuring fairness and more orderly migration between our two countries.” Biden was in Canada at the time, on his first official visit since winning the presidency. It later transpired that the neighbouring countries had signed an amendment to the STCA a year earlier, but hadn’t made the news public because officials feared untold numbers of migrants might rush to cross the border before the changes could be enacted. Now, both countries can turn away asylum seekers, no matter where they cross.
This was a shock to Canada’s reputation as an immigrant-friendly country. Here, eligible refugees receiving generous welfare benefits including government-assisted housing, healthcare, work permits, and financial support. A path to citizenship is available to anyone who can secure permanent residency in the country. But there is a feeling, among some Canadians, that migrants have started exploiting vulnerabilities in the system. Almost 70% of Quebec residents — the province that Roxham Road leads into — said they wanted this irregular entry point closed. With social services in the province overwhelmed by asylum-seekers, the federal government started transferring migrants to Niagara Falls in Ontario, which saw welfare services pushed to the brink as well. Since 2021, the Immigration Department has paid $94 million to book out entire hotels for months, in order to accommodate asylum-seekers.
The ease with which people could illegally enter through Roxham Road, according to analysts, was “almost an invitation for undocumented migrants to try their chances at obtaining asylum in Canada”. Specifically, migrants from Nigeria, who make up a big chunk of all those who cross over from Roxham Road. The majority actually possess a valid US tourist visa, flying into New York before making their way to Canada. “I went to search Google and I figured out this is what everybody is doing,” one Nigerian migrant said while crossing the border. A “disproportionate” number of Nigerians claiming asylum are doing so on the grounds of LGBT persecution, which is met with more sympathy in Canada than in the US. But concerns have been raised about the similarities in such applications, and one investigation by a Nigeria-based publication revealed how some Nigerians make up stories in an attempt to secure asylum. This has left some aid organisations worrying that legitimate claims are now more likely to be doubted.
Some migrants still have their hearts set on America, however. Those from Mexico and India make up the bulk of illegal crossings from Canada to the States, with many flying into Canada for the sole purpose of getting across the world’s longest international border without detection. Mexicans, who since 2016 can fly visa-free to Canada, often spend thousands of dollars flying into Toronto and paying smugglers to get to the US — hence Biden’s motivation to renegotiate the STCA.
And this phenomenon burst into the public consciousness when, in January 2022, the bodies of four Indian nationals (two of them minors) were found frozen to death in Manitoba, near the American border. The Patel family had come to Canada on a tourist visa, but hoped to reach family in Chicago. A documentary last year suggested that, in Gujarat, the Patels had been a comfortable, upper-middle class family with no financial troubles or experiences of racial or religious persecution. Why, then, would they risk crossing illegally into the US in the middle of winter with two young children?
Migrant rights groups almost always lay the blame for tragedies at the feet of unscrupulous smugglers and harsh government policy. Few acknowledge that the people who decide to illegally cross an international border almost always have agency. And for middle-class migrants, it’s usually not about security; it’s about status. In developing countries, attaining the “American Dream” — or another Western nation’s equivalent — is still highly aspirational. And while everyone has the right to build a good life for themselves, migrants who can pay their way into one North American nation in order to cross over into the other, depending on their preference, undermine faith in the immigration system.
Which is a problem for Trudeau. His Liberal government plans to welcome half a million new immigrants into Canada every year till 2025. (Like most developed nations, Canada has an aging population, a low birth rate, and is facing a labour shortage.) Almost 50% of Canadians already think this target is too high. If Trudeau doesn’t want public opinion turning against his plans, he needs to reassure the electorate that his government has a strong handle on who is being welcomed across our borders.
Amending the STCA is meant to signal that the government is aware of the growing unpopularity of irregular border crossers, who are seen as jumping the queue, leaving those without financial means further down the list — not to mention those waiting in refugee camps around the world. John Manley, one of the architects of the original STCA, supports the new changes, claiming that most migrants around the world are in much greater danger than those who have already found their way to the US. But there has been backlash from refugee rights advocates, with the Canadian Council for Refugees, among others, arguing that the STCA is unconstitutional. But last month, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled otherwise.
The closure of Roxham Road sent a message to all those who want to migrate to Canada that the way to do so is through official channels. Two days later, the Government of Canada launched a survey to poll Canadians’ opinions. Trudeau was, apparently, ready to listen to how Canadians feel about this issue. While some advocates have been arguing that closing the loophole will have pushed people into the hands of smugglers, it’s still too early to tell what the effects of the new changes will be, though data on the past three months’ of irregular border crossings should be imminent. But whatever the outcome: the Prime Minister won’t be promoting Canada’s immigration policies on Twitter any time soon.