Don’t assume U.S. minds are made up about Safe Third Country treaty: Canada’s envoy

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President Joe Biden’s administration is not dismissing out of hand the idea of renegotiating the bilateral 2004 treaty that governs the flow of asylum seekers across its northern border, says Canada’s ambassador to the U.S.

Kirsten Hillman, in Ottawa to prepare for Biden’s impending arrival on Thursday, said the administration understands how the Safe Third Country Agreement impacts the flow of migrants across the Canada-U.S. border.

Since those migrants are travelling in both directions, taking steps to discourage would-be refugees from slipping over the border undetected would be in the interest of both countries, she acknowledged.

“I think it does benefit both countries, and I actually think they do recognize that,” Hillman said in an interview.

“I would say there’s actually a lot of goodwill on the U.S. side to listen to us about this challenge that we’re facing.”

The agreement, signed in 2002 and implemented in 2004, requires asylum seekers to make their claim in the first country they arrive in, allowing customs agents to turn them away from official Canada-U.S. entry points.

It does not, however, cover claims made by migrants who manage to enter either country between official crossings, such as at Quebec’s Roxham Road, the busiest unofficial entry point in Canada.

More than 39,000 claims were filed in 2022 by people who were intercepted by the RCMP, the vast majority of them in Quebec, prompting Premier François Legault to expressly ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for help.

Trudeau has acknowledged that the best solution is to renegotiate the treaty, but the U.S. has been widely seen as having no interest in doing so.

“They do care about this challenge that we are facing,” Hillman said. “It just exists in a much broader context that is deeply complicated.”

That, of course, includes the vastly more problematic U.S.-Mexico border, where agents and officials reported nearly 2.4 million “encounters” in fiscal 2022 and exceeded the one-million mark in the first five months of fiscal 2023.

Both the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office have acknowledged that irregular migration will be on the agenda for this week’s meetings, part of Biden’s first visit to Canada since taking office in 2021.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby offered no new details on that agenda Tuesday, despite being asked whether Biden would be sympathetic to Canada’s immigration issues.

“There are a range of issues that you can imagine they’ll talk about,” Kirby said, deferring to a briefing that’s expected Wednesday.

“Everything from Norad and modernization of Norad capabilities, as well as of course military security and national security issues writ large, migration concerns, climate change, there will be certain issues of trade to discuss — there’s a lot.”

At last summer’s Summit of the Americas, Canada signed on to a holistic approach to a problem that’s been manifesting around the world in recent years, exacerbated by the economic impact of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, autocratic leaders and climate change.

Canada agreed to spend $26.9 million in 2022 on slowing the flow of migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as $118 million for progressive initiatives to improve the lives of people where they already live.

That included $67.9 million to promote gender equality; $31.5 million in health and pandemic response spending; $17.3 million on democratic governance and $1.6 million for digital access and anti-disinformation measures.

“It’s not that the U.S. doesn’t want to talk to us about the way in which those challenges are manifested at the Canada-U.S. border,” Hillman said.

“That is part of what we are talking about. But it’s only part of what we’re talking about. What we’re really talking about is this crisis in the hemisphere of migration.”

It’s long been a political problem for Biden, and it’s becoming one for Trudeau as well.

In the U.S., Republicans are fond of touting a hardline, zero-tolerance approach to the southern border, depicting Democrats as soft on immigration. Some even want to see Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas impeached.

The northern border — long seen as docile by comparison — was dragged into the fray last month with the launch of the Northern Border Security Caucus, a group of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill who say they fear a mounting tide of migrants slipping into the U.S. by way of Canada.

The U.S. does have an illegal migration problem at its northern border — and it seems to be getting worse.

From October 2022 through February of this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 68,784 encounters at or near the Canada-U.S. border with people deemed inadmissible, including 13,053 in the last month alone.

That’s more than twice the 31,119 encounters that took place during the same five months the previous year, and more than halfway to the 109,535 reported during the entire 12-month stretch of fiscal 2022.

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