“To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” These are the words of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, from his now-famous tweet on January 28, 2017. One day earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump issued a ham-fisted executive order, titled Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, a widely-condemned measure that led to chaos and confusion at border crossings and airports across the continent. Trump’s executive order included a 120-day pause on the admission of all refugees, and a 90-day pause on entry into the United States for all citizens from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan, until, in Trump’s words, “our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Whatever else it was, Trump’s order was not a “Muslim ban.” The seven countries were selected because they refused to cooperate and share information with the U.S. about individuals who may pose a threat to national security – a list compiled under the previous Obama administration. All seven are either failed states or official state-sponsors of terrorism. The ban applied to all citizens of these countries, not just Muslims, and most of the world’s 50 Muslim-majority countries were not affected by the ban. Trump and his team, however, failed to communicate important details surrounding the order, and, it seemed, were more than happy with the mischaracterization in the media that this was a “Muslim ban.”
Fourteen months earlier, while campaigning for the presidency, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Two days after his presidential order was issued, Trump’s security advisor Rudy Giuliani boasted about his involvement in what he called the “Muslim Ban” during an interview on Fox News. Giuliani and others later tried to deny that the ban was based on religious beliefs, but that didn’t stop a New York judge from citing the comment in his decision to grant an emergency stay and stop the removal of migrants detained through the executive order.
Amidst the hysteria that accompanied Trump’s rise to the presidency, Canada’s Prime Minister was positioning himself as the ‘anti-Trump’ – a sensitive, progressive leader in contrast to the harsh words and erratic temperament of the new president. Trudeau’s strategy seemed to work. His feel-good message touting Canada’s openness and diversity scored many positive national and international headlines. It was covered by everyone from the New York Times to Breitbart and Teen Vogue in the U.S.; in the U.K., it was featured favorably in the BBC, Daily Mail, Guardian, Independent and Sun. A Reuters wire story on the tweet was picked up by dozens of major publications around the world, including al Jazeera, the state broadcaster of the Qatari dictatorship that enjoys a large audience throughout the Middle East. The tweet made headlines in the United Arab Emirates, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Israel, Germany, Greece, Spain, Australia and Japan.
It truly was a tweet heard ‘round the world. Many of these stories, including a segment on PBS, interpreted Trudeau’s statement as a policy declaration – an official announcement that Canada would welcome those turned away by the United States under Trump.
Within a week, the New York Times heralded Trudeau for “Leading the Free World”. A few months later, he graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine under the plaintive headline, “Justin Trudeau: Why Can’t He Be Our President?” Canada’s celebrity prime minister was the darling of the western liberal intelligentsia, but his #WelcomeToCanada platitude was sending a different message to would-be refugees the world over.
When tweets come home to roost
For the first time in recent history, Canada experienced a noticeable surge in illegal border crossings from the United States. Foreigners claiming to be refugees began arriving by the dozens, sometimes hundreds per day at two specific unofficial border crossings: in Emerson, Manitoba and along Roxham Road near St-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec. The surge turned into a flood as the weather warmed and the RCMP set up permanent refugee processing stations at the two main unofficial ports of entry.
In July 2017, more than 3,000 migrants crossed illegally into Canada; another 3,800 arrived during the first two weeks of August. Within six months of Trudeau’s tweet Canada had received more asylum claims than it did in the entire previous year: 25,496 from January to mid-August 2017, compared to 23,920 in all of 2016. Claims more than doubled the total in 2014, the last full year under the previous Harper administration, when Canada received 13,455 asylum applications.
Many liberal journalists were reluctant to blame Trudeau’s virtue-signaling for the flood of illegal migrants. Media reports started pointing elsewhere, including to several online hoaxes – WhatsApp messages and YouTube videos, for instance, instructing members of the Haitian community to cross into Canada illegally to be guaranteed a visa – as the culprit. Still, the daily scenes of migrants clambering across the border, children and suitcases in tow, eventually prompted Trudeau to clarify Canada’s immigration laws – namely, that we have them – several months after his sanguine tweet.
“Canada is an opening and welcoming society, but let me be clear. We are also a country of laws,” said the PM sternly, during a small press conference on a quiet Sunday afternoon in mid-summer. “Entering Canada irregularly is not an advantage. There are rigorous immigration and customs rules that will be followed, make no mistake.”
The immigration department then sent representatives to Haitian communities in Montreal and Florida in an effort to dispel the notion that Canada was wide open to asylum seekers. Many Haitians had fled to the U.S. and Canada in 2010 after the devastating earthquake struck their homeland because both countries created special immigration programs to temporarily accommodate them; Canada’s expired in 2016 and the Trudeau government began deporting Haitians. Tens of thousands living in the U.S. are facing deportation when the equivalent program there expires next year.
Trudeau’s outreach to the Haitian community may have ebbed the flow of illegal entry into Canada, but it certainly did not stop it. This, in part, is because of the persistence of online memes encouraging migrants to illegally enter Canada and promising them a welcoming haven. Although these often contain misinformation about Canadian immigration rules, it is true that Canada is in many ways a haven. Once a migrant arrives in Canada and makes an asylum claim, he or she is entitled to a rigorous legal process to determine if they are truly a refugee eligible for protection in Canada under domestic law and international agreements.
Canada is signatory to two international treaties that require the government to accept anyone claiming to be a refugee – the 1951 Refugee Convention, which requires signatories not to send migrants back to dangerous places, and the 1967 Refugee Protocol, which broadens the definition of a refugee and requires signatory countries to provide asylum seekers with many of the same rights as citizens, including the right to have your case heard by a judicial body. In addition to these treaties, Canada goes even further in its protection of would-be refugees. In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the precedent-setting Singh case that everyone who is physically present in Canada, including those who entered the country illegally, is entitled to the protections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As long as you are in Canada, you get the same legal rights and protections afforded to Canadian citizens, including the right of appeal.
Thanks to Canada’s generous social welfare programs, and an influential refugee lobby, asylum seekers are entitled to generous social benefits the moment they arrive in Canada. According to the federal immigration department, they receive up to $20,000 per migrant, per year in taxpayer-funded services. Entitlements include access to government housing, social assistance payments, public education, and government health care. Under the Interim Federal Heath Program (IFHP), asylum seekers are provided health care coverage through the federal government while they are waiting for their immigration status to be determined. It provides the same care as a person on social assistance in Canada, including additional services that most Canadians pay for out of pocket – such as dental care and pharmaceutical coverage.
(The Harper administration attempted to restrict IFHP coverage for illegal migrants whose refugee applications had been rejected by an immigration judge. The change applied only to migrants facing deportation orders and was an attempt to remove any incentive for migrants to stay illegally, but the Conservative government was forced to stand down after a federal judge called the policy “cruel and unusual”. To this day, Liberal partisans, including Trudeau himself, equate the policy to stripping refugees of healthcare – even though it only applied to those who were legally determined not to be refugees.)
Enforcing bad laws while ignoring good ones
Since January 2017, 67,635 people have made asylum claims in Canada, and about 28,000 of them have entered Canada illegally. Large numbers of migrants are deliberately entering the country at locations where Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials are not present to enforce the laws governing our border – specifically, the Safe Third Country Agreement, a bilateral treaty between Canada and the United States. Under this agreement, an asylum seeker is required to make their claim in the first “safe country” they arrive. If a person is truly a refugee, the thinking goes, they will not shop around for the best country to settle; they will make their claim as soon as they arrive in a safe country. If a migrant arrives at an official Port of Entry – any official border crossing along the Canada-U.S. border (including airports) – and attempts to make the same asylum claim, CBSA officials will turn that person away.
A loophole, however, presents itself when a migrant enters Canada between official Ports of Entry, such as Emerson or Roxham Road. The RCMP, not CBSA, is responsible for intercepting migrants who cross the border illegally. Once a migrant is apprehended by the RCMP, he or she is brought to the nearest CBSA or immigration office, where they undergo a brief security screening. If it does not turn up a criminal history or security red flags, they can file a refugee application. Because the migrant is already in Canada and the application is made within the country, we treat the claim like any other asylum seeker, including those fleeing genuine danger in demonstrably unsafe countries.
Canada is required under our international treaty obligations to process these claims, even if the applicant violated the Safe Third Country Agreement. But as suggested by Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel, Canada could close this loophole in an instant by designating the entire border as an official Port of Entry. The Liberals have refused, and the NDP has called for Canada to scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement all together, arguing that the U.S. under Trump is no longer a “safe country.”
As of February 1, 2018, the wait time for a hearing through the Immigration and Refugee Board – the quasi-judicial body that determines if an asylum seeker is truly a refugee – was 20 months long. The IRB is so overwhelmed with applications and cases that it has given up on its own timeline regulations; meanwhile, the government is bypassing important security steps – such as in-person interviews – in the interest of speeding up the process and clearing the long backlog. In the meantime, these migrants collect significant welfare benefits from the Canadian taxpayer and begin to build new lives in Canada. They enroll their children in school, find jobs, make friends, build a community, and join our society. These migrants are given hope, often false hope, that they can call Canada home.
As recently as 2014, however, Canada’s acceptance rate for asylum seekers was only 44 percent. Following the policy changes made under the Trudeau government, the acceptance rate has shot up to 69 percent in recent years. Still, this means nearly one in three migrants will eventually be rejected by Canada and sent to their country of origin, shattering their hope for the Canadian dream. And yet, because of the IRB’s backlog and a migrant’s Charter right to make an appeal, deportation from Canada can take years. The government recently confirmed that less than one percent of illegal border-crossers who entered Canada in 2017 have so far been deported.
A belated new, tougher tone
Canada received a record number of asylum seekers in 2017 – 50,440 – a number more than three times higher than the annual average during Harper’s last term in office. Nearly half of these asylum seekers, some 20,500 people, entered Canada illegally, with the lion’s share crossing at Roxham Road. The Trudeau government has responded to escalating border crisis by publicly downplaying the problem while throwing money at it. The 2018 federal budget added an additional $173 million to pay for extra patrols at the illegal crossings, as well as increased resources to the IRB to process refugee applications. They’ve built new permanent structures at the illegal crossing at Roxham Road, and stationed RCMP officers there 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The strategy seemed to be working – until Easter weekend, when 600 migrants arrived to make asylum claims at Roxham Road. This year, government officials now estimate Canada could see as many as 400 illegal crossings per day during the warmer summer months. During the first four months of 2018, about 7,500 people crossed illegally into Canada – a 300 percent increase over the previous year. This is creating huge headaches for provincial and municipal governments. Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard has demanded an additional $146 million from Ottawa to pay for costs of accommodating the asylum seekers, and suggested that other provinces should share the burden. Trudeau’s immigration minister Ahmed Hussen criticized Quebec for closing some temporary asylum shelters – including the one at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium – while Trudeau quietly caved and committed to helping asylum seekers reach their “preferred destination” – most likely Toronto.
City of Toronto Mayor John Tory responded by ringing the alarm over asylum seekers taking up spaces in city homeless shelters. According to Tory, Toronto experienced a 500 percent increase in the number of asylum seekers staying in homeless shelters over the past two years, from 459 in 2016 up to 2,351 in 2018. Tory urged the feds to help cover the $64.5 million in direct costs related to providing shelter to asylum seekers.
As the costs and repercussions mount, the Trudeau government’s tone has begun to shift. It started with a memo, dated April 12, 2018, from the Department of Public Safety. The curtly-worded document, obtained by Le Journal de Montréal, provided strict instructions for CBSA officers not to talk to the media. Many CBSA officers were frustrated by the top-down edict, and one whistle-blower said CBSA officials were being “muzzled” by the Trudeau government, while another said, “there’s a law of silence that has lasted since last summer.”
In Parliament, when pressed by the opposition, Trudeau has attempted to blame the crisis on the previous Harper administration, falsely accusing it of inflating refugee processing back logs and wait times that have in fact proliferated under Trudeau’s watch. More recently Trudeau has begun blaming the Trump administration for the crisis. He complained in Question Period that his government had been trying to negotiate a solution with the Americans “for months,” but to no avail. “Trudeau pins Canada’s illegal-immigration woes on Trump administration,” read a May 2018 headline in the Washington Times, over a story in which a Canadian official alleged the White House was “not co-operating.”
At a May 7 news conference near Roxham Road, the government sent out three top ministers to talk tough about border enforcement. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale warned that illegal entry is no “free ticket” into Canada, while Transportation Minister Marc Garneau stated that, “a bit more than 90 percent of irregular migrants do not meet our criteria [for asylum], and that they must leave [Canada].” Garneau later clarified that he was referring only to acceptance rates for Haitians, the number one source country of asylum claims in 2017. The majority of people crossing illegally this year are from Nigeria. Minister Hussen said at the news conference that he has traveled to Nigeria to meet with local officials, but was vague on his purpose or what was achieved. Nigeria is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa and amongst the world’s fastest growing economies. And yet, many Nigerians are coming to Canada en masse, using a loophole to circumvent Canada’s immigration and visa rules. Canada requires that Nigerian visitors obtain a tourism visa – to ensure they plan on leaving after their visit. Instead of applying for a Canadian visa – which would require proof of a return ticket – they instead obtain a U.S. tourism visa, then fly to New York and make their way to Roxham Road to claim asylum in Canada.
Canadians can see that our generosity is being taken advantage of and our rules are not being followed. According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll taken before the latest and largest surge of illegal immigration, nearly half of Canadians want to deport everyone who illegally crosses into Canada from U.S. The same poll found that four in ten believe illegal immigration makes Canada “less safe”. Nearly half of respondents disapprove of Trudeau’s approach to the crisis. Canadians generally support immigration – so long as its legal, orderly, and it prioritizes those who will likely be successful in Canada. But those attitudes are shifting. A poll commissioned by the Canadian immigration department found that only eight percent of Canadians want higher immigration numbers, and internal government documents revealed that support for immigration policy drops dramatically when Canadians are given more information about the number of people arriving each year. Canadian skepticism is growing. Contrast this with attitudes in the U.S. towards Trump’s travel ban, which is supported by six in ten Americans.
Immigration policy requires a delicate balance. Canada has yet to experience the wave of nativism and nationalism that has swept much of the Western world. Canadians, in general, approve of immigration, so long as that immigration is being conducted according to the rule of law and serves Canada’s national interest. But when it comes to the flood of asylum seekers – self-selected, un-screened and unvetted migrants arriving daily – many Canadians feel that our orderly immigration system is being undermined. Millions of people have waited patiently and followed the rules carefully to legally migrate to Canada – often at great personal and financial costs. Seeing a steady stream of migrants willing to break the laws and jump the queue weighs on public trust in the system. And having a prime minister who seems to encourage this illegal flood, because it flatters his progressive global “brand”, makes it all the worse.
Trudeau is testing our generosity, and undermining what was once the world’s gold standard when it comes to immigration policy. And for what? A magazine puff piece and some retweets from the world’s prettiest people? Trudeau has struggled to gain control of this situation he himself created. He’s opted to appeal to a constituency of progressive globe-trotters – marking himself as the compassionate and progressive anti-Trump – rather than standing up for Canadians and the rule of law. As a result, Canada’s borders are under siege, and Trudeau’s popularity is plummeting. Meanwhile, south of the border, Trump’s policies have gained traction and illegal immigration into the U.S. has fallen substantially. When it comes to immigration and border security, playing the anti-Trump card seems to have backfired on Trudeau.