There’s a limit to what throwing resources at the US border can achieve. We need to shore up intelligence and immigration enforcement to ensure the integrity of a principled, rules-based approach to providing refuge to the world’s most vulnerable people.
By Christian Leuprecht, March 28, 2017
Recent media reports of desperate asylum seekers crossing the Canadian border between ports of entry in the dead of winter, some suffering terribly of exposure to the elements, have precipitated an emotionally-charged, political debate.
In line with the populist politics of the day, simplistic solutions abound: notably loud calls to deploy more resources at Canada’s land border. We are told this is needed to halt the steady trickle of migrants that have been crossing illegally, hoping for more sympathetic treatment than they might find in America.
But there are serious limits to what throwing money at the border can accomplish. On the one hand, migrants have been brazen about crossing illegally in full view of Canadian authorities, even after being warned that they would be arrested. On the other hand, enhanced enforcement at the border will hardly deter those intent on crossing. Let’s be serious: would a few more Mounties along the almost 5,000 kilometres of land border with the United States (excluding Alaska) really make a difference? Instead, scarce resources need to be allocated where they will have the greatest impact.
We need to shore up intelligence and immigration enforcement capacity to ensure fair and equitable access to protection for the world’s most vulnerable people.
Canada should be concentrating (and surging) its resources beyond (rather than at) the border. We need to shore up intelligence and immigration enforcement capacity to ensure fair and equitable access to protection for the world’s most vulnerable people. Once irregulars are at the border, it is too late: In a 21st century world where flows of people, goods, money, and data are global, the border no longer offers a line of defence, merely a line of jurisdiction.
So what can we do?
First, Canadians need to realize that immigration is actually a national security policy, arguably Canada’s most important one. We need to grow immigration levels, but in a way that balances fairness, equity, safety and prosperity. Countries that do not act strategically to counter the effects of population aging will eventually pay a heavy price that is not readily reversible.
On a per capita basis, at just under 1 percent of Canada’s population, Canada takes in more immigrants than any other G7 country – currently 300,000 a year – and more than just about any other democracy. On a per capita basis, Canada also already has among the highest refugee resettlement ratios in the world: one of every 10 refugees worldwide who is resettled. What are we doing right? Canada’s strategy hinges on a careful balance among highly skilled economic migrants, family reunification, and refugees. All three of these categories are commonly misunderstood.
And unlike much of the rest of the world, Canada does not really take in refugees: it welcomes future Canadians.
The initial generation of economic migrants may fill labour-market gaps, but because they tend to incur higher health, social, and education costs than established Canadians, and because they are usually intent on bringing spouses, children, elderly parents and extended family members with lesser skills, the initial benefit to Canada is, at best, a wash; the real benefit accrues from well-integrated, well-educated subsequent generations. And unlike much of the rest of the world, Canada does not really take in refugees: it welcomes future Canadians. In Europe, the (unrealistic) expectation is that people who seek asylum will eventually return to their country of origin. By contrast, neither Canadians nor refugees themselves expect them to return to their former homes.
How many refugees Canada should accept is controversial (and, as I argue with Sean Spear in our December 2015 MLI policy brief “Getting Refugee Policy Right,” Canada could and should take in a lot more refugees if its approach were more systematic in spreading the burden across the country). The means, however, are not up for debate. Canada’s refugee intake and resettlement policy has long been premised on working systematically with international organizations to identify a limited number of refugees who are in greatest need of resettlement, and who are reasonably well-matched with Canadian society.
That principled approach ensures that the most vulnerable and destitute who could not otherwise make it to Canada, including women, children, and the elderly, stand a fair chance. Simply by virtue of having the resources, know-how, and stamina to make it to Canada, the bulk of illegal entrants that have been crossing the border do not fall into that category. There are millions of people in the world worthy of protection under our international treaty obligations; so, how is one to choose?
Encouraging people to jump the queue and cherry-pick their preferred country of settlement undermines Canada’s principled approach to refugees and is not in keeping with the spirit of Canada’s international treaty obligations. Is it really in Canada’s interest to encourage people who are already in the United States to cross the border illegally and evade the rule-of-law based safe third-country agreement between Canada and the US?
If even a small fraction of the estimated 12 million undocumented migrants who now reside in the United States were to make their way to Canada, it would trigger a political and refugee crisis of epic proportions.
What we should be asking is, how did migrants who are crossing illegally into Canada enter the United States in the first place? After all, if they had a legitimate refugee claim, they could have long ago filed it, and it hardly follows that those who are subject to removal from the United States should necessarily be taken in by Canada. If even a small fraction of the estimated 12 million undocumented migrants who now reside in the United States were to make their way to Canada, it would trigger a political and refugee crisis of epic proportions: even double the number of refugee claimants in a year would overwhelm current capacity to adjudicate claims. Already, irregular crossings in Quebec alone were up 10-fold year over year during the first two months of this year and a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll suggests that more Canadians disagree than agree with the way the Prime Minister has been handling this file.
Some at least have lived in the United States for many years, many of them either undocumented or under suspended removal orders. That makes it unlikely that they will be able to make a convincing case for refugee protection in Canada. Although annual numbers fluctuate, typically less than half the claims are accepted. Even so, claims can take years to process and many who have exhausted their appeals are not actually removed.
Having initially been given the benefit of the doubt of Canada’s refugee protection system, once it becomes clear that they have exhausted their appeals, many are prone to going underground rather than face deportation. Lack of resources for enforcement is also a major concern. Consider that the number of deportations from Canada dropped by about half between 2011-2012 and 2014-2015: from 16,000 to 8,000 people who were returned to their country of origin. Over the same period, the number of arrests under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act waned from 2,837 in 2011-2012 to 1,887 by 2014-2015. And many of those who are removed are those who are easy pickings for enforcement, such as elderly visa overstays, rather than those who pose a genuine security risk or have criminal records. The former director general of immigration enforcement at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has speculated publicly that the precipitous drop in removals and arrests is directly related to a substantial reduction in resources. This trend runs counter to robust support the aforementioned poll registered for removing people who are in Canada illegally. It also suggests a stepped-up removal tempo of those whose claims are denied is integral to shoring up legitimacy for the way the government has been approaching this file.
To safeguard the integrity of our refugee and immigration strategy, Canada needs more resources beyond the border. By and large, Canada is already pretty good at this and getting better at working with allied and partner countries to forestall the arrival of illegal entrants.
Remember the arrivals of the MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea on Vancouver Island in 2009 and 2010? That we did not see more boats arrive is no accident: it was the result of concerted, deliberate, strategic action by the government of the day.
Similarly, since November 2016 the electronic Travel Authority (eTA) gives Canada ample data on all those intent on travelling to Canada (except Canadian and US citizens, and travellers with a valid Canadian visa) long before they ever show up at an airport. The eTA now makes it much harder to fly to Canada using false or forged travel documents. Canada has also improved the sharing of entry-exit data at ports of entry with the United States, which is designed to deter those who are in one country illegally from crossing the border.
Never has it been as difficult to reach Canada by illicit means: crossing by land between ports of entry is a last resort.
To reduce the phenomenon of illegal crossings to the actions of the new US administration is overly simplistic. The recent surge in irregular crossing is instead a symptom of the confluence of the aforementioned changes over the course of recent months. Never has it been as difficult to reach Canada by illicit means: crossing by land between ports of entry is a last resort.
Canada still needs to deploy more resources for immigration enforcement. Those who have travelled through Vancouver International Airport recently may have been approached by a member of the CBSA – while intent on leaving the country. On the surface, that may seem counter-intuitive. The classic mindset is to monitor those entering the country. However, in a global world, criminal enterprise extracts vast sums from prosperous countries such as Canada which it then seeks to move offshore. CBSA is trying to deter criminals from illegally expatriating proceeds of crime that were ill-gotten in Canada. The same applies to immigration enforcement: ensuring that persons deemed inadmissible under the Immigration and Refugee Act or visa overstays are, indeed, removed.
In sum, more resources at the border is a wrongheaded, misinformed strategy. Instead, Canada needs more resources beyond the border, especially for intelligence and immigration enforcement. If Canada’s fairly principled approach to accepting and resettling refugees is compromised, then that ultimately undermines Canada’s demographic competitiveness and economic prosperity in the long term. That, in turn, is at odds with Canada’s national security strategy and interests, both of which are, ultimately, premised on the integrity of a functional immigration regime.
Christian Leuprecht is Munk Senior Fellow at MLI, and Professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University. He directs the security theme of the Borders in Globalization Partnership Grant, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. His late mother was a refugee.