Liberals risk new-Canadian vote with border-crossing response, say pollsters

Some relevant polling data – will see how these numbers shift or remain stable should the trend continue or change:
Politicians and the media are to blame for using needlessly alarmist language on the rise of asylum seekers, when the system has the capacity to manage, says a former Immigration and Refugee Board chair.

The Liberals have switched to more hardline messaging around asylum seekers, say pollsters and observers, as the government’s response has left it open to attack in the face of increasing irregular border crossings and charges from the Conservatives that the Grits are soft on border security.

Politically, the challenge and vulnerability for the Liberals is especially acute among first-generation and new-Canadian communities, said Jackie Choquette, vice-president at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, which both parties have been targeting and fighting over for several elections.

“That’s traditionally been a huge area of support for the Liberal Party,” said the former provincial Liberal staffer, and an area where they could lose votes.

The issue is starting to gain traction as opinions shift within that community, she said.

“That’s a more-difficult, nuanced conversation, I think, for the government to have and that’s why I think it’s the biggest vulnerability.”

Though the Conservatives have been accusing the Liberals of being weak along the border, Summa Strategies senior consultant Kate Harrison said the attack line that’s more “acutely felt” is “on the notion of queue jumping.”

In a move many saw as a way to court new Canadian votes ahead of the 2015 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) promised to make family reunification easier for new immigrants to sponsor relatives coming to Canada.

Those “lofty promises” present a political vulnerability, Ms. Harrison said, as some families still wait for that to happen while hearing messages—accurate or not—that others get to jump the line.

“If they don’t make any progress on family reunification, a lot of those new Canadians that are already here and have family members that have been waiting to [come] here may grow very resentful,” said Ms. Harrison, a former Conservative Party staffer.

No party wants the discussion to devolve into “stoking resentment” within those communities, she said, but it has the danger of heading that way if parties aren’t careful.

All parties are “playing a careful dance” around how they frame the “tricky issue” because it “cuts to the very core of who we are as Canadians,” said Ms. Choquette, particularly as the country tends to pride itself on being welcoming.

Government shifts, sharpens message on asylum seekers

At committee and in Question Period last week, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale (Regina-Wascana, Sask.) responded to Conservative questions on what they’ve called “the border crossing crisis” by reiterating international obligations to refugees and stressing the government doesn’t think the situation is acceptable.

“Coming across the border in a way that tries to circumvent the law or defy proper procedure is no free ticket to Canada,” Mr. Goodale told reporters last week.

Observers saw that language from him and other officials as a very different, more stern approach. It was also a necessary shift following documents that showed Mr. Trudeau’s tweet from January 2017 welcoming “those fleeing persecution, terror [and] war,” caused confusion among officials and a flood of inquiries.

Angus Reid Institute executive director Shachi Kurl said there are a couple of outstanding questions.

“We’ve seen that message sharpened in the last little while, but is it enough? Is it enough practically and is it perceived to be enough in the minds of Canadians?” she said, adding the firm plans to poll soon on this issue again.

In a September poll following a summer spike in irregular crossings, Angus Reid found 53 per cent of respondents said the country has been “too generous” to the border crossers.

“I think there’s a narrative—which is not necessarily an accurate narrative—that Canada is an endlessly welcoming and generous country,” she said, but the polls show that’s not the case.

“As we see more individuals arriving at the border I think if anything that concern is only heightened, not lessened,” she said, adding the same goes for general awareness of the issue. “For those who are concerned, they are unlikely to have seen anything in terms of a change of approach that will have lessened or alleviate those concerns.”

‘Alarmist’ language a problem: former IRB chair

Because Canada and the United States are part of the Safe Third Country Agreement, people who cross from the U.S. at regular points of entry along the border or at airports aren’t able claim refugee status. The same does not apply at unofficial entry points, prompting the Conservatives to call on the Liberals to suspend the agreement.

Mr. Goodale has said the government broached the subject and is having “exploratory” talks with the U.S.

The latest government numbers show 2,560 such entries in April—a 30 per cent increase over the previous month. There were 20,593 irregular crossings from the United States in 2017 and have remained above 1,500 crossings a month since July 2017. The vast majority of those crossings are through Quebec, which observers note is a strategically important province politically in which the Liberals are pouring resources and where Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (Regina–Qu’Appelle, Sask.) has recently spent time courting disenchanted Bloc Québécois supporters. While the Liberals still lead the pack, a new poll showed the Tories are making gains in the province.

Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

That uptick in border crossings “is only an increase compared to the unusually low numbers of claims in the past few years,” according to the Canadian Council for refugees.

The average number of refugee claims between 2013 and 2015 was 13,300 per year but between 2000 and 2009, it was an annual average of 31,400, the council said, arguing the case could be made that Canada is “returning to more usual numbers.”

Both the “loose language” and discussion around numbers from media and politicians has been “alarmist,” said Peter Showler, former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board.

“It’s a kind of Chicken Little reporting on the numbers as though … the sky is going to fall,” he said. “The sky hasn’t fallen.”

The claims that came through in the last year “are well within the capacity of the Canadian refugee system,” he said, though agreed it requires more resources.

Part of the problem, he said, is use of the word “illegal” rather than “irregular” in discussing the kind of crossing.

The NDP has also raised this concern, that people have a right to seek protection and there are specific laws and processes in place to determine if someone falls within Canada’s definition of refugee.

The focus instead should be on protection and the legal rights of entrants, Showler said. And just because a claim is determined not to fall within Canada’s definition of refugee, that doesn’t make them fraudulent.

Most importantly, he noted the acceptance rates currently are approximately the same as those of the national average for refugee claims.

“It means that the significant majority of people who are seeking Canada’s protection, the Immigration Refugee Board has reached the conclusion that they are in need of protection,” said Mr. Showler, adding the rate is for the last two to three years is about 65 to 70 per cent—”which historically is quite high.”

Canadians should have a better understanding of the distinct refugee flows, he said, and the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump and his government’s pronouncements, including an executive order last year banning refugees and visitors from Muslim-majority countries.

Last year, many coming to Canada were from Haiti and feared deportation as Mr. Trump announced the 2019 end of the temporary residency program set up to take in those seeking refuge from the 2010 earthquake, he noted. Canada has already ended a similar program. More recently, arrivals are originally from Nigeria and head north soon after they land in the U.S., leading Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen (York South–Weston, Ont.) to travel to Nigeria this week to meet with officials on the ground.

For the most part, pollsters say opinions on refugees are polarized along political lines, with Conservative voters more likely to say the country is being too generous to asylum seekers.

Pushing border security and painting the Liberals as soft may produce “modest gains” for the Tories but it’s not a strategy that will dramatically increase their support, said Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates.

However, it can provide emotional energy for motivating their base, he said, which are “far more concerned” about the issue.

“Frankly, elections are won on emotional engagement,” he said, and the approach can bring out committed supporters, which can produce higher turnout, better fundraising, and more involvement.

Even so, Mr. Graves said he doesn’t see this issue as “a huge exposed flank” for the government while Ms. Choquette said the Liberals still need a win on the file.

“They need to make a measurable difference on one aspect of this issue, even if it’s a small aspect,” she said, though there’s no easy solution. “The potential for this issue is it hurts them with a number of key constituencies that they rely on or will need to rely on in 2019. They’re running out of time.”

via Liberals risk new-Canadian vote with border-crossing response, say pollsters – The Hill Times

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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