Canada’s Mexican Migrant Problem

The Trudeau Liberal government came to power in 2015 partly on a promise to implement a more welcoming immigration policy than its predecessor, particularly for refugees and asylum seekers. At the time, the focus was on Syrians fleeing the bloody civil war in that country. A lesser-noticed immigration policy change, promised by the Liberals during the election and implemented in late 2016, allowed Mexican nationals to enter Canada without a visa. The Harper Conservative government had imposed the visa requirement in 2009 to deal with rising refugee claims and security issues associated with the growing number of Mexicans coming to Canada from that crime-ravaged country. Two years have passed since the visa was lifted and the predictable result is that asylum claims and security concerns have risen to the point where Canada’s visa-free policy with Mexico needs to be examined once again.

Since diplomatic relations were established in 1944, the Canada-Mexico relationship has been relatively strong. Trade issues were the usual irritant, not immigration. But by 2009, Mexico had become the top source country for asylum claimants in Canada. Those numbers had tripled between 2005 and 2008, despite the vast majority being rejected by Canadian immigration authorities. Of the more than 9,400 claims filed in 2008, only 11 percent were accepted. To deal with the deluge, the Harper government imposed the visa requirement and toughened screening procedures to weed out fraudsters and criminals.

These moves resulted in an 85 percent drop in the number of Mexican asylum claims, from 7,592 in 2009 to 111 in 2015, but they also hurt Canada-Mexico relations. The Harper government sought to mollify its NAFTA partner with a policy review which recommended adding Mexico to Canada’s Designated Country of Origin or “Safe Country” list in 2013, and allowing Mexicans to qualify for Electronic Travel Authorization should the visa be dropped. A final decision was delayed by the 2015 election and the Conservatives’ defeat. It remained stalled until the Trudeau government fulfilled its campaign promise and dropped the visa on December 1, 2016 in exchange for Mexico expanding its imports of Canadian beef.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought assurances from then-Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto that his government would discourage the flow of asylum seekers. But privately, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) officials were warning that Mexico’s low standard of living, poor human rights record and high crime rates were likely to drive an increasing number of Mexicans – including criminals – to seek refuge in Canada. They further advised that asylum seekers and criminals from other Latin American countries might obtain fraudulent Mexican passports to gain entry to Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto in Ottawa in 2016

Even as the visa requirement was lifted, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) warned that it would make travel to Canada easier for members of Mexican cartels. As reported by veteran Vancouver Sun crime reporter Kim Bolan, the CBSA predicted the cartels would try to “expand their presence in Canada by sending more operatives and recruiting local airport or marine port workers with ties to Mexico…” Over a year earlier, an RCMP source had told Bolan that cartel “influence has increasingly affected criminal markets in Canada…” The Trudeau government thus had plenty of notice that lifting the visa was going to exacerbate these problems but chose to ignore it.  As one critic noted: “Trudeau made a bunch of promises to the Mexicans without fully understanding [either] the consequences…or why Harper imposed the Mexican visa in the first place.”

While the Mexican government takes great pains to say it is in control of domestic security, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Criminal violence is increasing in incidence, magnitude, and scope – to the point where it rivals Islamic State anarchy in Syria and Iraq at the height of its bloodletting. Mass killings, decapitations, and kidnappings are routine, and the complicity of Mexican police and security agencies reflects the power and reach of Mexico’s eight major drug cartels which, along with many other smaller gangs, operate with impunity throughout the country and often in conflict with one another. Their activities permeate all levels of Mexico’s political, social and economic fabric.

Since 2006, more than 200,000 deaths and over 35,000 disappearances have been attributed to the cartels. This includes 31,174 murders in 2017 alone, which was a 27 percent increase over the 24,557 murders in 2016. In the first six months of 2018, more than 15,973 murders were reported, a 26 percent increase over the same period in 2017. The 2016 and 2017 violent death counts are far higher than they were in Iraq (17,000) and Afghanistan (16,000) in 2017 and are second in the world behind only Syria, which had 60,000 murders in 2016 and 39,000 in 2017.  The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations has designated Mexico as one of the world’s deadliest “conflict zones” along with Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Mali, and Sudan – all of which have visa requirements with Canada.

The security situation in Mexico is also prompting more travel warnings by both the Canadian and American Embassies there. In January 2018, both embassies warned their citizens to strictly avoid travel to five Mexican states because of the drug-related violence and recommended against travel to several other states. This was followed by another alert in which the Canadian Embassy warned Canadians to “exercise a high degree of caution in Mexico due to high levels of criminal activity as well as demonstrations, protests and occasional illegal roadblocks throughout the country”. This second alert, which remains in effect today, was expanded to include several more states including Guerrero and its murder capital of Acapulco, where the state government disarmed the entire city police force in September on suspicion of corruption. All this, plus 14 killings in Cancun last April, has finally prompted the Mexican government to increase its security resources in all tourist areas. But no one, including the government of Canada, should mistake Mexico for a safe country. 

Prime Minister Trudeau claimed the assurances he obtained from President Nieto in return for the visa-lift would prevent “any increase in asylum claims or other irregular migration” from Mexico. But his government also said it might reimpose visa restrictions if Mexican asylum-seekers hit more than 3,500 in any given year. Last year 1,500 made asylum claims, six times more than the mere 250 recorded in 2016. The CBSA has predicted that lifting the visa will increase the numbers to roughly 6,000 in 2018 and 9,000 in 2019.

The CBSA also detained 2,391 Mexicans between January and September 2017, compared to 410 in 2016 and 351 in 2015 during the same period. The number of Mexicans apprehended at Canadian airports during the first nine months of 2017 also surpassed the 2012-2014 numbers; there were 313 in January 2017 alone. All the detainees were deemed to be a threat to the Canadian public. Either their identities could not be confirmed or they were considered a flight risk. By mid-2017, the CBSA had also identified 65 Mexican nationals in Canada as being involved in “serious crimes” which was up from 53 in 2016 and 28 in 2015.  Another 15 were detained for “national security reasons” in that same period – more than the previous two years combined.

In light of all these alarming trends, it is time to consider reimposing the visa for Mexican visitors to Canada. While the vast majority are undoubtedly not criminals and are reasonably fearful for their security at home, most Canadians expect their government to put domestic security concerns first. The United States has had visa controls in place with Mexico for many years because it has long held the view that the drug cartels and other organized crime groups (which are already operating extensively within the U.S.) are destabilizing Mexico to such a dangerous degree that they post a national security threat to the United States itself. While Mexico is not located directly on Canada’s southern border, a similar argument could also now be applied to Canada’s own security interests.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper once said that visas “are a sovereign matter and are not a question to be negotiated with other countries”. While that was an oversimplification because both his and the Trudeau governments tried to manage the visa issue in concert with trade-related concerns, it is true that sovereignty and security ought to take precedence over all other considerations. The growing security problems associated with the rising immigration, visitor, and refugee flow from Mexico to Canada merit a full review of the visa lift. Failure to do so puts Canadians at risk and abdicates a primary responsibility of government: protecting its citizens.

Greg Purdy is International Risk Advisor for XPERA Corp. He spent 33 years with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP Security Service, and has extensive experience in Latin America and the Caribbean. He holds a fellowship with the Latin America Research Center at the University of Calgary and is a member of the Canadian Council for the Americas.

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