In my travels over the past few days, it’s been my privilege to meet more of the many highly skilled, hard-working Canadians who are standing on guard for our country along our international boundary with the United States – RCMP officers, employees of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), officials from the department of Immigration, Refugees & Citizenship (IRCC), as well as volunteers from the Red Cross and members of the Canadian Armed Forces. I thank them all for their service.
With the U.S., we enjoy the longest, most open, least militarized and most successful border in the history of the world. It runs some 9,000 kilometres, dotted with 117 official Ports of Entry. Some 400,000 people move back and forth through those Ports of Entry every single day. So does $2.4 billion in two-way trade, every day.
But in addition to that normal, legitimate and highly valuable flow of people, goods and services, this year we are also seeing a larger-than-usual influx of asylum seekers who are choosing to enter Canada from the United States, not at official Ports of Entry, but at a few irregular crossing points – particularly, one south of Vancouver, one near Emerson, Manitoba, and one at Lacolle in Quebec along the highway from New York to Montreal. This latter location has seen by far the largest numbers, about 11,000 this calendar year, while the tally for Manitoba is about 750 and for British Columbia about 400.
An asylum seeker is a non-Canadian who asks for protection in Canada because, they claim, their lives are in danger elsewhere. This is a question of fact that they must prove. Once they set foot on Canadian soil – under both Canadian domestic law and Canada’s international obligations – these people can attempt to make an asylum claim. There is no guarantee it will be accepted, but its validity (or not) is the first thing that must be determined, according to a meticulous legal process.
Why don’t these people come through the front door of a Port of Entry? Because Canada and the United States have a bilateral agreement at those official locations that prohibits “jurisdiction shopping” between our two countries – that is, an asylum seeker must make his/her claim in the first country in which they land. But this prohibition does not apply to those who have crossed between Ports of Entry and are already in Canada, however briefly.
So what happens when someone enters Canada irregularly to claim asylum? Canadians can be absolutely assured that all existing Canadian laws are being duly enforced.
Firstly, the person is arrested by the RCMP. They are thoroughly questioned. Their documentation is examined. They are searched, finger-printed and photographed. Their personal data, both biographic and biometric, are checked against Canadian and international databases (including Interpol) for any criminal, immigration or security flags.
If offences against the Criminal Code are observed or suspected while asylum seekers are undergoing this process, they are dealt with by local police authorities in the usual way according to law. In total this year for the entire country, there have been only three instances in which charges have been laid at a Port of Entry. If CBSA is concerned that the person cannot be properly identified, or could be a danger to the public (factoring in his/her previous criminality), or is a flight risk, they can be detained until those issues are resolved.
Once the RCMP and CBSA are satisfied about security and safety, IRCC officials interview the person to confirm they are technically eligible to apply for asylum according to the terms of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. For example, a person with a record of serious crimes is not eligible to proceed any further. All those who pass the IRCC interview are then required to appear before a formal hearing of the independent and quasi-judicial Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).
The legitimacy of each asylum seeker’s claim is determined by the IRB. If they cannot prove factually that they need protection in Canada against persecution, torture, terror or war elsewhere, their claim will fail and deportation procedures begin. Historical patterns suggest that fewer than half of asylum claims succeed. So border hopping to make a claim is no guarantee of a ticket to Canada. It is both unwise and dangerous.
In addition to enforcing all Canadian laws, we are also meeting all of Canada’s international obligations. The world is facing the biggest dislocation of humanity since the Second World War. As some people arrive in an unorthodox manner at our doorstep, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has repeatedly said that Canada is handling this situation in an exemplary manner.
In addition to the federal agencies I have already mentioned, I also want to commend the always impressive “Government Operations Centre” within my department which provides essential coordination in every urgent situation. And I want to thank provincial governments, municipal authorities, NGO settlement groups and many individual citizens for the generous and proficient manner in which they have tried to be helpful and supportive. This is a whole-of-Canada matter, reflecting the best of our skill, humanity and nationhood.