The premier of Quebec wants a new migration deal with the U.S. He wants it urgently. He wants the prime minister of Canada to negotiate it. The prime minister? He wants it too.
It’s become a pressing political priority and major federal-provincial irritant, with Canada eager to slow the flow of migrants entering on foot from the U.S. at unofficial points of entry, such as the contentious one at Roxham Road, south of Montreal.
There’s one small problem. The Americans get a say here.
For years, the U.S. has been conspicuously tight-lipped on the topic, and this week offered new — and rare — public insight into the American perspective.
Newsflash: A country dealing with millions of migrants per year is not in a major rush to reclaim Canada’s thousands.
U.S. Ambassador David Cohen told CBC News irregular crossings into Quebec are a symptom of a broad global migration challenge; and he’d rather address problems, not symptoms.
He wouldn’t even acknowledge the countries are talking about Canada’s desire to extend the 2002 Safe Third County Agreement to make it easier to expel migrants who cross between regular checkpoints.
Conversations with officials in both countries make clear no agreement is imminent. Whether President Joe Biden’s trip to Canada next month changes anything is an open question.
Two sources say that, to date, there have been constructive talks with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, but the issue is far from settled.
Here’s an assessment in blunter language from an immigration expert in Washington, who also happens to know Canada very well.
“There is zero incentive for the United States to reopen Safe Third Country right now. Zero,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, senior adviser on immigration at Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Centre, who once led Homeland Security operations at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa.
WATCH | A spike in border-crossers in Quebec:
Ottawa faces pressure to close Roxham Road border crossing
The federal government is facing significant pressure to close the Roxham Road irregular border crossing in Quebec that’s being used by an increasing number of migrants to get into Canada from the United States.
‘Our house is burning right now’
In its current form, the Safe Third Country Agreement says asylum seekers who enter the U.S. or Canada must make their claims in the first country they arrive in, but it only covers official points of entry.
Canada wants the agreement extended across the entire frontier, so it applies to migrants who use irregular entry points like the now-famous Roxham Road.
To Canadians wondering why it’s taken years for the U.S. to prioritize these negotiations, Brown said: “Because our house is burning right now on the other border.… Sorry.”
Just look at two parallel events that unfolded this week, in Canada and the U.S. They might as well have been happening in parallel universes.
Quebec Premier François Legault got lots of attention back home for a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and an op-ed in the Globe and Mail.
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He said Quebec received 39,000 irregular crossers last year, and could not handle more, saying it was straining housing, hospital services, and language training.
He requested money from Ottawa, said all future migrants should be sent to other provinces, and he demanded a new Safe Third Country deal with the U.S.
While the northern neighbour was asking the U.S. to accept more migrants, the Biden administration released plans to accept fewer, with a draft executive order.
The proposed rule would make it easier to instantly deport asylum claimants who try entering the U.S. without first scheduling an appointment in a mobile app, and first requesting asylum in Mexico.
That hardening attitude would come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to developments in the U.S.
Amid a historic worldwide surge in human displacement, migration has become perhaps the most explosive issue in American politics.
U.S. border agents could encounter more than three million migrants this year, higher even than the record-smashing total in 2022.
It’s causing strain in border communities like Yuma, Ariz., where agents met 300,000 migrants last year — that’s triple the local population.
Arizona official on northern complaints: ‘A joke to me’
The head of a regional hospital in Yuma said his staff have been caring for migrants and it’s cost the organization $20 million.
He said he laughs when he hears northern states complain about migration: Denver and New York, for example, have expressed a welcoming attitude then later declared they were overwhelmed.
“It’s pretty funny,” said Dr. Bob Trenschel.
“They all seem to have a conniption when they get two buses of migrants.… The mayor of New York is squawking when he gets two busloads? That’s a joke to me.”
Now the mayor of New York is, in fact, paying for buses to carry migrants upstate, including to northern border communities where they enter Canada on foot.
After Canada averaged about 10,000 refugee claims per year since 2017, this northward surge has added tens of thousands of new border-crossers.
For comparison’s sake, the U.S. could expect more asylum claimants from Russia alone; if the recent rate holds, more than 60,000 Russians could seek asylum in the U.S. this year.
Other countries have even bigger challenges. Take Colombia: it’s currently home to nearly 10 per cent of the population of Venezuela, more than 2 million people who’ve fled.
An asylum-policy analyst in Washington said Canada’s migration issues don’t come up often in the policy conversation there.
“It’s certainly not something that is frequently raised,” said Susan Fratzke, a former State Department official and now senior analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
“When it does come up, it’s always in reference to knowing that it’s a Canadian priority.”
She said it’s possible there could be a deal, probably as part of a broader migration agreement and probably not soon.
Watching Biden visit for development
One American analyst of Canada-U.S. relations is more optimistic.
He said Biden has a demonstrated desire to maintain good relations with Canada, as evidenced by his resolving irritants around electric-vehicle incentives and the Nexus trusted-traveller program.
For that reason, said Chris Sands, he wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some sort of development next month when Biden visits Canada.
“It would be a wonderful announceable at an event like that,” said Sands, director of the Canada Institute at Washington’s WIlson Center. “This is eminently doable if there’s will on both sides.”
On Thursday, Trudeau said he has spoken directly to Biden about this and suggested it will be on the agenda of Biden’s upcoming Canadian visit.
One person familiar with the binational discussions said there’s a shared desire to get a deal, but working out the details is more complicated.
He said goodwill isn’t the issue. The problem, he said, is working through budgeting and logistics, like sorting out who handles what responsibilities among the handful of law-enforcement and border agencies in both countries.
WATCH | U.S. ambassador: Let’s tackle broader issues
Renegotiating Safe Third Country Agreement won’t stop irregular migration: ambassador
“Whatever you do to the Safe Third Country Agreement is … going to do very little about irregular migration,” said U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen. “If you’re serious about trying to deal with irregular migration, you have to deal with the underlying causes.”
Potential deal: Something bigger
So what would it take to get a deal?
To get Americans’ interest, Brown said Canada would probably have to offer something unrelated, or related tangentially.
Maybe something like a major Canadian stabilization role in Haiti, she said, or a clampdown on the flow of Mexicans through Canada into Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York, which U.S. officials say is an emerging trend.
She suggested one surprising way the premier of Quebec might get Washington’s attention: accept more U.S. dairy imports, adding, “I’m only partially joking.”
The U.S. ambassador was clear in the CBC interview: his objective is a broader plan for international migration.
Canada has, in fact, signed a hemispheric agreement where it promised to take a lead role on some initiatives, one being resettling more French-speaking migrants, especially from Haiti.
Connecting the dots, Fratzke said any agreement on this issue will probably be bigger, not just a one-issue deal on Safe Third Country.
Two suggestions she offered: Canada could help build the capacity of other countries’ asylum systems, and could expand legal opportunities for economic migration.
The latter is what Brown wants for the U.S. too.
She said any solution must include opportunities for people to apply legally, so that they have hope the official pathways might work, for both humanitarian and economic visas.
The U.S., for example, is resettling only a few hundred refugees per year lately from Latin America: “That’s crazy,” Brown said.
And for all the millions of migrants it’s received, the percentage of people on U.S. soil born abroad is not actually that high, about average among industrialized countries.
She said the other part of a solution is more orderly enforcement. The asylum backlog is massive, and it takes an average of over four years to decide cases.
Brown said applications should be processed swiftly, decided near the border.
In the meantime, she said, when richer northern countries, like Canada, and the U.S., talk about restricting migration, they’re essentially pushing the burden south, to poorer countries, to places like Colombia, Central America and Mexico.
“That’s what we’re talking about,” she said.