Pollsters point to rising public racism, Quebec seats to explain Liberals’ U-turn on refugees

More takes on the change in approach:

The Liberal government’s move to toughen up the refugee system is a signal to voters that fairness is the party’s priority when it comes to foreigners entering the country, says a former Liberal insider, and it could be part of an attempt to outmanoeuvre the Bloc Québécois, or win over ex-Liberal voters who don’t want more people of colour in Canada, say pollsters.

The government wants to send a message to Canadians that migrants who cross the border between official points of entry to make a refugee claim will be treated the same as those who make a claim at a recognized entry point, said John Delacourt, a vice-president at Ensight Canada and former director of communications in the Liberal Research Bureau.

“That is the line I think that ultimately resonates here. ‘There will be no privileged treatment; it will be fair for everybody,’” said Mr. Delacourt.

Thus far, would-be refugees have been able to exploit a loophole in Canada’s international commitments, and make a claim for refugee status after crossing the border between official points of entry from the United States, while those who try to claim status at official border crossings are generally immediately rejected under the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., which says a person seeking refugee protection has to do it at the first safe country they reach.

The government has been defending itself from near-constant criticism from the Conservative opposition for the past two years over its handling of the loophole, and the flow of thousands of migrants into Canada because of it. Those migrants have been given security, health, and safety checks by Canadian officials, then allowed to proceed into Canada’s urban centres to pursue a refugee claim.

Statistics from the Immigration and Refugee Board show that 38,646 claims were made by “irregular” border crossers between February 2017 and December 2018. Only 9,330 have been dealt with so far by the IRB, which has accepted a little less than half of them as valid claims, while the other half were rejected, withdrawn, or abandoned.

The government stick-handled the issue for nearly two years without major changes to the policy or legal framework, but changed tack with its 2019 budget last month and budget implementation bill earlier this month, which will block asylum seekers from making a refugee claim in Canada if they have already had a claim rejected in another country that Canada deems safe, including the U.S., a practice Border Security Minister Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.) called “asylum shopping.”

The 2019 budget described the change as an effort to “better manage, discourage, and prevent irregular migration.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) told reporters April 10 that his government wants to ensure Canadians have “confidence in our asylum system, our refugee system” when asked about the changes. He said the change to government policy was a response to an increase in refugee claimants caused by global instability.

The government has also moved to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. Canada wants to change the pact to close the loophole surrounding claims at non-official points of entry.

Mr. Trudeau’s government made international headlines in 2015 when it agreed to welcome 25,000 Syrians fleeing war in their country within a span of months. The sudden influx of border-crossers from the United States, however—many of them originating in Haiti and Nigeria—has put his government on the defensive over refugee policy since early 2017.

Canadian attitudes toward migrants have shifted dramatically over the past few years, said pollster Frank Graves, the president of Ekos Research.

“What we’re seeing in the public is that the attitudes to immigration, and particularly to things like visible-minority immigration, are becoming incredibly polarized in ways that they were not in the past,” he said.

“Attitudes toward immigration broadly, which includes refugees and asylum seekers, is now becoming a sorting variable…which is frankly kind of unprecedented in Canadian political history. We don’t usually make ballot-booth decisions on the basis of immigration policy.”

Mr. Graves said Ekos has done analysis that suggested to him that Liberal policies on refugees and immigrants had driven people who voted Liberal in 2015 to begin supporting the Conservative Party—specifically some non-university-educated, working-class males who believe “too many” of the immigrants who come to Canada are visible minorities.

“That view is shifting voters in ways that it never has before,” he said.

Nearly 40 per cent of respondents to an Ekos telephone poll of 1,045 Canadian adults between April 3 and 11 said that “too many” of the immigrants coming to Canada were visible minorities. Just shy of 43 per cent said an “about right” share of immigrants were visible minorities, while 11.5 per cent said “too few.”

Former Liberal immigration minister John McCallum reacted to Mr. Graves’ polling figures on Twitter April 13, writing, “Such a dangerous shift from when I was managing Syrian refugees and challenge was we couldn’t bring them in fast enough to satisfy sponsors. Only 3 years ago!”

Of those who said “too many” immigrants were racialized people, nearly 69 per cent identified as Conservative supporters, versus 15.2 per cent for the Liberal Party, and 27 per cent for the NDP. The margin for error for the poll itself was plus or minus three percentage points, 19 times out of 20, but the margins of error for the party-identification figures for that specific question were higher—between seven and 14 per cent—because the sample size shrinks when respondents are divided into smaller groups.

Some Canadians have been waiting years for their parents or grandparents to be allowed to come to Canada through the immigration system, but Canadians often conflate refugee and immigration issues, though they are considered as separate streams of migrants by the government, said Mr. Delacourt, who also worked as a staffer in the office of former Liberal immigration minister Joe Volpe in the early 2000s.

“They’re very different streams, and anybody who actually has a strong sense of policy in this area will tell you, ‘That’s mixing apples and oranges,’ in terms of the priorities and planning. But to Canadians, the optics … people do not see individual streams here. They see a strain on resources,” Mr. Delacourt said.

Border Security Minister Bill Blair has said the government’s move to block asylum seekers from making a refugee claim in Canada if they have already had a claim rejected in another country that Canada deems safe is meant to stop ‘asylum shopping.’ The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“I think part of the government’s course correction on this is about addressing this larger perspective on what’s ultimately fair. Of course, they’re not going to sacrifice what’s fair for individuals who are coming across, case by case. Of course everyone is going to get all the protection one deserves. But by the same token, there is this real concern that the optics of irregular migration creating a strain on resources. It’s not where a government going into an election campaign is going to think it’s a good idea,” said Mr. Delacourt.

The Liberals are likely worried about damage done by the spread of false information or misinformation about their work on the refugee file during the upcoming campaign, said Mr. Delacourt, pointing to a September report by the Canadian International Council that said there was “mounting evidence” of Russian troll accounts on social media spreading disinformation about positions on asylum seekers and refugees in Canadian politics.

The Liberal decision to get tougher on refugee policy could also be motivated by expected battles with the Bloc Québécois in smaller towns, cities, and rural areas in Quebec in the upcoming election, said pollster Greg Lyle, the president of Innovative Research.

More than half of Canadian adults surveyed in an Innovative poll in September said the government was “not aggressive enough” in its approach to immigrants crossing into Canada illegally, while six per cent said it was being “too aggressive,” 26 per cent said it was “acting appropriately,” and 15 per cent said they didn’t know.

The online poll surveyed 2,410 adult Canadians who were part of online research panels between Sept. 27 and Oct. 1. Online polls are not considered truly random, so a margin of error for the poll can’t be calculated.

Forty per cent of Liberal Party supporters said the government was not being aggressive enough on that issue, according to the poll, and 57 per cent of respondents in Quebec. “That, to me, is the big deal,” said Mr. Lyle.

More than 70 per cent of those surveyed said that “the issue of immigrants who are crossing into Canada illegally right now” was a serious problem, including 65 per cent of Liberal supporters, and 81 per cent of respondents in Quebec.

The Bloc Québécois is doing well in the regions of the province, said Mr. Lyle, and will differentiate itself from the Grits by opposing oil and gas pipelines, and contrasting its position with the Liberal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The Bloc will also likely take a more “nationalist” approach to immigration policy, he said.

“It’s a very critical area for the Liberals to do well in. Moving on the migrant issue…shuts down that vulnerability.”

Source: Pollsters point to rising public racism, Quebec seats to explain Liberals …