HAMILTON—The Liberal government does not expect to resolve concerns about the northward flow of refugees at unofficial Canada-U.S. border crossings when President Joe Biden visits Canada in March, says Immigration Minister Sean Fraser.
Biden’s visit to Ottawa, his first official trip to Canada since becoming president, will likely be in the first half of March, although no date has been set for the bilateral meeting, sources say.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Biden met recently in Mexico and at several international summits, as well as virtually since the Democratic president’s 2021 inauguration, and the two leaders set out a so-called “road map” in 2021 to guide bilateral actions in areas of co-operation.
But that road map of priorities does not expressly include any revision of a 2004 agreement called the Safe Third Country Agreement, even though the agreement itself requires continual review.
The agreement applies to refugee claimants entering at official border crossings and requires them to make asylum claims in the first “safe country” they arrive in. However, it doesn’t apply to those who sneak across or arrive at unofficial or “irregular” crossings, such as Roxham Road, near Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle at the Quebec-New York border.
Those asylum-seekers are permitted to remain in Canada and file refugee claims. As a result, during the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigrants south of the border, a flood of refugee claimants poured into Canada via irregular crossings. Asylum-seekers also try to enter the U.S. irregularly from Canada.
Canada has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the U.S. to expand the agreement to all border crossings, which would close the loophole and end the incentive to use irregular crossings.
Quebec Immigration Minister Christine Fréchette told La Presse she hoped the issue would be resolved during the Biden visit, calling it is “essential” to “correct” the agreement to stem the flow of irregular migrants into Quebec.
Fraser downplayed any prospect of a resolution soon.
“There’s not necessarily a giant point of disagreement that we need to overcome” in talks with the U.S., Fraser said.
He said only that there is an “opportunity to potentially advance” the discussions, adding there are “regulatory” and “legislative” issues to resolve, which he declined to identify.
“There’s a mutual expectation that there can be open and frank and confidential conversations between parties, but there are regulatory processes as well that will have to take some time to play out before changes can be made official,” Fraser said.
Meanwhile, migrant and refugee advocates have challenged the constitutionality of the Safe Third Country Agreement at the Supreme Court of Canada, saying it violates the constitutional rights of those seeking asylum by turning them back to the U.S., where critics say they face detention if not outright deportation to unsafe countries of origin. The high court has reserved judgment.
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