Andrew Coyne: We have a problem with border crossers — but this is no crisis, John Ivison: The Liberals’ Band-Aid solutions won’t fix asylum seeker problem

Good and balanced analysis:

Bowing to the opposition parties’ demands, the Commons Citizenship and Immigration committee will hold special hearings this month on what Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel is calling the “border crisis.”

The notion that there is a crisis on the border — that Canada is being inundated by a tide of asylum claimants crossing the border in defiance of our laws — has been heard with increasing frequency in recent weeks, coinciding with the election of Doug Ford’s Conservatives in Ontario.

Last week’s meeting of federal and provincial immigration ministers broke up in acrimony over the issue, with the feds’ Ahmed Hussen decrying the Ford government’s use of the term “illegal border crossers” as “not Canadian” (Liberals prefer “asylum seekers”) while his counterpart Lisa MacLeod accused him of bullying her. Followed by the usual performative outrage online — he called her un-Canadian! she called them illegal! etc.

All of this mounting fury, while the number of people claiming asylum after crossing the border between regular ports of entry — the neutral and factual description — is in decline.

In June, the Immigration department recorded just 1,263 “RCMP interceptions” — for that is what happens to them after they cross — less than half what it was in April and barely a quarter of the rate last summer.

Still, the 10,744 such interceptions so far this year is two and a half times the number recorded by this point last year. Perhaps the rate will continue its recent decline. But even if the year-end total were the same as last year’s, it would still be considerably higher than has been the norm in recent years.

That’s a problem, no doubt. The monthly rate may be declining, but the accumulated total of more than 30,000 claims over the last 18 months is by all accounts putting a strain on refugee services in Toronto and Montreal. The growing backlog of unprocessed claims, moreover, now at about 43,000, leaves claimants waiting months or years to have their claims assessed: unpleasant for them, costly for taxpayers.

But a crisis? What distinguishes this from any of the many other pressing problems on the public agenda? What, in particular, justifies the kind of massive media coverage and opposition hyperventilating the issue has received?

It is, of course, entirely proper that the opposition should ask questions of ministers, and criticize the government’s response to the surge in claims as inadequate, botched or worse. It may even be fair to suggest the government shares the blame for precipitating it, notably via the prime minister’s notorious “Welcome to Canada” tweet.

But you can tell a lot about what a politician is up to by how much emphasis they put on an issue. It isn’t that what they are saying about it is necessarily untrue: it’s the lack of proportion, the fevered pitch, the exaggerated stakes.

It was perfectly legitimate, for example, for Dalton McGuinty to disagree with John Tory’s proposal to extend public funding to religious schools in the 2007 election, though the proposal would have affected roughly 50,000 of the province’s two million schoolchildren. But to elevate it to the central issue of the campaign, as if the province would dissolve into civil strife if it went through? That’s where the demagoguery lies.

So what is it about the prospect of roughly 60 asylum seekers a day crossing our border that is cause for such uproar? Yes, they are crossing “illegally,” even if the charge is stayed pending the hearing of their asylum claim: Liberal delicacy on this point is not helpful. That’s obviously not something we should wish to encourage.

But on the scale of illegal acts, doing an end run around a border post to get your asylum claim heard in Canada, rather than the United States — especially in its present state of mind — ranks somewhere between a traffic offence and listing a dubious expense on your income tax return. People shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it, and they aren’t: the first thing that happens after they cross the border is they are arrested.

They aren’t dodging any “queue,” because there isn’t a queue for refugees. You plant your feet on Canadian soil, you have a right to have your claim for asylum heard, period — not just under UN treaties to which we are a signatory, but under the Canadian Constitution. But that’s all you have a right to: a hearing. If your claim doesn’t stand up, you’re deported to your country of origin.

If that’s taking too long, that’s a good argument for spending more money on the process for assessing claims. It is not an argument for the kinds of wild, blunderbuss measures being tossed about, most of them illegal, unworkable or both: building a fence along one short stretch of road in Quebec, for instance, when claimants have 8,000 kilometres of border to choose from.

Or — the Conservatives’ favourite — declaring the entire border an official port of entry under the Safe Third Country agreement, as if we could impose our definition on the Americans, under an agreement we begged them to sign. Or “just sending them back” — as if, again, we could force the Americans to take them. To say nothing of the legal and moral implications of doing so.

To say nothing, again, of the logistical impossibility of patrolling an 8,000-km border. Right now, claimants willingly surrender at the border, even having crossed it illegally, because they know they’ll get a hearing. Were we somehow to deny them that — by invoking the notwithstanding clause, say — you’d have a lot more people arriving surreptitiously: not just crossing illegally, but living here illegally.

Sometimes, it is true, you have to do desperate things in a crisis. But this isn’t a crisis and, if it were, these wouldn’t solve it.

Source: Andrew Coyne: We have a problem with border crossers — but this is no crisis

John Ivison focuses on the IRB, the lengthy and almost indefinite processes and delays in removals for those found ineligible , and the recommendations of the Yeates report on possible solutions:

The Liberal government didn’t create the problem of floods of asylum seekers crossing the border illegally. Donald Trump did that when he signalled the U.S. would allow temporary protected status on significant migrant populations from countries like Haiti to expire.

But the Liberals can be fairly blamed for making decisions that have exacerbated the problem — and for fomenting the issue for political ends.

Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s principal secretary, tweeted on the weekend: “Enough is enough. It’s time to stand up to this divisive fear-mongering about asylum seekers. Let’s not allow the alt-right to do here what they’re doing elsewhere.”

But pointing out failures in the system is not an act of partisanship – it’s certainly not an invocation to bash people already on the bones of their arse. The numbers don’t lie and, by every metric, the system is under more pressure now than when the Liberals came to power.

The government is touting the fact that there were just 1,263 border crossings in June — “the lowest since June, 2017.” But 10,744 migrants arrived in the first six months of the year – more than enough to outpace the budgeted processing capacity.

The Commons Citizenship and Immigration Committee met Monday and agreed to produce a report on “irregular” (more correctly “illegal”) border crossings by Aug. 3, and to invite the ministers of immigration (Ahmed Hussen), public safety (Ralph Goodale) and families, children and social development (Jean-Yves Duclos) to appear.

Hussen boasted Monday the government “has a clear plan for managing asylum seeker pressures,” as the city of Ottawa suggested it will support Toronto and other municipalities facing temporary housing pressures (many migrants are housed in two college dormitories that they have to vacate before classes start). Toronto said it needs around $90 million; the federal government has, to this point, offered $11 million.

But whatever is offered is a Band-Aid – and a Band-Aid does not constitute a plan.

Before all sides engage in more pointless partisan point-scoring, they should sit down and read a report on the refugee system already made public.

Neil Yeates, a former deputy minister of citizenship and immigration, produced an independent review of the system that was released in April. It makes stark reading. The refugee determination system, he said, is “at a crossroads,” dealing with a surge of claimants that it is ill-equipped to manage. If not tackled promptly, a large backlog will build that will take years to clear.

The nearly 50,000 claims made in 2017 were mostly from people avoiding the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. that would likely have rendered them ineligible. By the simple act of crossing between ports of entry, they have been able to access Canada and its generous welfare provisions.

But sudden surges in migrant numbers is not a new problem.

The government made significant reforms between 2010 and 2012 to address a similar increase. The Balanced Refugee Reform legislation was aimed at making sure bona fide claimants would be approved more quickly and failed claimants removed just as judiciously.

The goal was a system that was “fast, fair and final.”

Alongside the imposition of visas on Mexicans and Czechs because of concerns over bogus claims, there were structural changes that allowed public servants, rather than political appointees, to be the first level decision makers at the Immigration and Refugee Board’s Refugee Protection Division. There was also an increase in operating funds that allowed for the elimination of the backlog within two years. Stable funding was put in place to facilitate a system that handled 22,500 claims annually.

The numbers between 2010 and 2017 are instructive.

In 2010, before the changes, there were 52,023 pending cases; the intake was 25,783; and the output was 34,260.

In 2013, the corresponding numbers were 22,544; 10,227; and 21,091.

By 2017, those numbers were 47,209; 47,425; and 23,102.

A more streamlined system saw the backlog cut in half and bogus claimants dissuaded from trying to enter Canada – only 10,227 people claimed asylum here in 2013.

Since then, the backlog has more than doubled and claimants quadrupled, as visas were waived for Mexicans and Romanians, and floods of Haitians and Nigerians were attracted by word that the Canadian system is a push-over.

Part of the reason the backlog went down was that failed claimants were actually removed. In 2012/13, 14,490 failed claimants were returned to their country of origin. In 2016/17, that number was just 3,892.

The result is a refugee population that “significantly exceeds the funding capacity,” in Yeates’ words. “Resourcing and prioritization of refugee removals are not fully at the level envisaged under the reforms,” he said.

Hussen is right to say that providing asylum claimants due process is not a choice, “it’s the law” under the UN Convention on Refugees and the Charter of Rights.

But due process should not be indefinite. Yeates talks about a “failure of finality” that creates a “pull” factor for asylum seekers, increasing the likelihood they will find a pathway to stay in Canada.

He is critical of the Refugee Appeal Division, which was never intended to provide a new hearing for failed claimants. If they are refused at the appeal division, would-be refugees can then proceed to the Federal Court, meaning “final is a distant goal,” according to Yeates.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says the government “has a clear plan for managing asylum seeker pressures.”

If the system is not reformed to make it faster and more final, there clearly needs to be a significant increase in a budget that has averaged around $216 million in the past five years.

Hussen said there is a plan, but Yeates points out “there is no contingency framework to increase capacity.”

Any report by the immigration committee should lean heavily on the Yeates report, which suggests dozens of technical reforms that might improve the situation, such as creating a new agency to recommend an annual plan, establish operational performance targets and confirm forecasts. The plan should be tabled in Parliament, Yeates suggested.

But no amount of bureaucratic tinkering will compensate for lack of political will.

The government must get serious about removing claimants, particularly from countries that don’t normally produce refugees.

Alternatively, it must admit that it accepts the idea of the refugee system being used by people seeking a better economic life and allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to increase the capacity of a system creaking under the challenge of dealing with twice as many people as it was designed for.

Source: John Ivison: The Liberals’ Band-Aid solutions won’t fix asylum seeker problem

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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