Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency

Most comprehensive list I have seen to date, with the assessment that some of these will ensure given the comprehensive and interlocking nature of the changes:

Through bold, sweeping changes as well as less-noted technical adjustments, the Trump administration has dramatically reshaped the U.S. immigration system since entering office in January 2017. Now well into its fourth year, the administration has undertaken more than 400 executive actions on immigration, spanning everything from border and interior enforcement, to refugee resettlement and the asylum system, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the immigration courts, and vetting and visa processes. This reports offers a comprehensive catalog, by topic, of those actions, including their dates and the underlying source materials.

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 gave the administration new openings to push forward many of its remaining immigration policy aims. This period has seen bans on travel and a pause on visa issuance for certain groups of foreign nationals and a further closing off of the U.S.-Mexico border that has effectively ended asylum there.

Much of the White House’s immigration agenda has been realized in the form of interlocking measures, with regulatory, policy, and programmatic changes driving towards shared policy goals. Though these largely administrative actions could, in theory, be undone by a future administration, this layered approach, coupled with the rapid-fire pace of change, makes it likely that the Trump presidency will have long-lasting effects on the U.S. immigration system.

Brain Waste among U.S. Immigrants with Health Degrees: A Multi-State Profile

Good in depth study by MPI. Suspect similar patterns in Canada:

The coronavirus pandemic that swept into communities across the United States beginning in Spring 2020 has placed enormous strain on health-care systems and highlighted the work of both U.S.- and foreign-born health professionals. But even as the need for testing, treatment, and care is high, an estimated 263,000 immigrants and refugees with at least a four-year degree in a health field have largely been sidelined, either employed in jobs that require no more than a high school diploma or out of work.

U.S. and State Data

This spreadsheet offers estimates of immigrants and refugees with health-related undergraduate degrees who are underemployed or unemployed, both nationwide and in selected states. It includes details on their race/ethnicity, legal status, degree majors, origin countries, and the languages other than English that they speak. Click here.

This fact sheet offers the first state-level profile of this untapped pool of immigrant health professionals. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Labor, it provides estimates of the number and key characteristics of underutilized immigrants with health degrees, including their English proficiency, the other languages they speak, their top fields of study, and the legal statuses they hold.

Among the key findings of this analysis are that these immigrants are widely distributed across the United States, not concentrated in traditional immigrant-gateway states. There is also considerable overlap between the languages other than English that they speak and those spoken by Limited English Proficient populations in the states where they live, making them a potentially valuable resource in providing linguistically and culturally competent care.

Source: https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/brain-waste-immigrants-health-degrees-multi-state-profile

MPI Report: A Rockier Road to U.S. Citizenship? Findings of a Survey on Changing Naturalization Procedures

Another good and informative report by MPI:

The 9 million immigrants who are eligible for U.S. citizenship face growing obstacles to naturalization as the result of changed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) adjudications standards and a recasting of the agency’s mission to prioritize fraud detection over customer service, a Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of a survey of 110 naturalization assistance providers across the United States finds.

While USCIS continues to approve the vast majority of naturalization applications it receives, the agency took nearly twice as long to process the average case in fiscal 2019 than was the case three years earlier, with case backlogs increasing as applications have been kicked back more frequently with requests for more information and English and civics tests have been administered more strictly. This increased vetting of applications was happening before a trio of new developments could significantly reduce citizenship acquisition for qualified immigrants in the months and years ahead:

  • COVID-19-related delays that shut down USCIS in-person interviews for three months, delaying the citizenship oath-taking for more than 100,000 would-be Americans,
  • the imminent furlough of two-thirds of the agency’s staff in early August unless Congress provides emergency funding to address a $1.2 billion budget shortfall, and
  • a citizenship fee increase from $640 to up to $1,170 that is scheduled to go into effect in September, alongside a restriction in eligibility for fee waivers for low-income applicants.

“The seeds of the current budget crisis were sown before the pandemic when USCIS put more intensive vetting and fraud detection in place, along with other policies that have reduced application levels,” said Randy Capps, who is director for research for U.S. programs at MPI. “Now the pandemic and anticipated furlough threaten to further slow application processing at the same time that the fee is set to increase substantially, creating much higher hurdles and potentially deterring people from applying for citizenship.”

In its latest report, MPI examines the effects of changing USCIS standards and procedures during the Trump administration, drawing from a survey of 110 naturalization assistance providers in 34 metro areas administered by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) between March – September 2019. These groups are among more than 200 providers in the ILRC’s New Americans Campaign, which has assisted more than 470,000 people in completing their citizenship applications.

The report, A Rockier Road to U.S. Citizenship? Findings of a Survey on Changing Naturalization Procedures, finds:

  • About one-quarter of survey respondents reported their clients missed interviews when USCIS sent notices to incorrect addresses, sent them too late or sent them to the attorney, not the applicant.
  • More than one-third reported USCIS more often issued requests for evidence (RFEs) to support applications, especially for documents related to tax compliance and income, continuous residency and physical presence, marriage and child support, and criminal history, with one-quarter reporting substantially more documents being required.
  • USCIS officers asked detailed questions not directly related to citizenship eligibility, and administered the English and civics tests differently, often more strictly, according to 10 percent of respondents.

Most of these changes were common among the 52 USCIS offices across the country covered by the survey, suggesting these shifts in adjudication practice likely represent changes in USCIS policy or broad-based agency culture, rather than being limited to individual office or adjudicator practices.

The report underscores the importance of oversight of naturalization procedures to ensure that the country reserves citizenship for those who fully meet its requirements and preserves the lawful claims of legal permanent residents to the full civic and political rights that citizenship brings. Yet even as USCIS has shifted its mission to increased vetting and fraud detection, studies have shown little to no evidence of naturalization fraud.

“USCIS’ stricter adjudicating processes have accomplished nothing aside from increasing the time and costs associated with completing the naturalization process,” said Eric Cohen, executive director of the ILRC. “Increased obstacles to citizenship prevent qualified U.S. residents from voting, running for public office, traveling without visas to many other countries, sponsoring family for immigration and many other benefits. They have no demonstrated impact on fraud prevention, which is nearly non-existent to begin with.”

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/changing-uscis-naturalization-procedures.

Immigrant Health-Care Workers in the United States

Another good analysis by MPI. Similar picture in Canada with respect to immigrants and visible minorities:

Immigrants represent disproportionately high shares of U.S. workers in many essential occupations, including in health care—a fact underscored during the coronavirus pandemic as the foreign born have played a significant role in frontline pandemic-response sectors. In 2018, more than 2.6 million immigrants, including 314,000 refugees, were employed as health-care workers, with 1.5 million of them working as doctors, registered nurses, and pharmacists. Immigrants are overrepresented among certain health-care occupations. Even as immigrants represent 17 percent of the overall U.S. civilian workforce, they are 28 percent of physicians and 24 percent of dentists, for example, as well as 38 percent of home health aides.

Overall, immigrants ranging from naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, and temporary workers to recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program accounted for nearly 18 percent of the 14.7 million people in the United States working in a health-care occupation in 2018. As a group, immigrant health-care workers are more likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to have obtained a university-level education. Immigrant women in the industry were more likely than natives to work in direct health-care support, the occupations known for low wages. In contrast, immigrant men were more likely than the U.S. born to be physicians and surgeons, occupations that are well compensated. Compared to all foreign-born workers, those employed in the health-care field were more likely to speak English fluently and had higher rates of naturalization and health insurance coverage.


The term “foreign born” refers to people residing in the United States at the time of the Census survey who were not U.S. citizens at birth. The foreign-born population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents (LPRs, also known as green-card holders), refugees and asylees, legal nonimmigrants (including those on student, work, or certain other temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization. The terms “immigrant” and “foreign born” are used here interchangeably.

The terms “U.S. born” and “native born” are used interchangeably and refer to persons with U.S. citizenship at birth, including persons born in Puerto Rico or abroad born to a U.S.-citizen parent.

Most analyses in this article divide health-care occupations into the following occupational groups:

Health-Care Practitioners and Technical Occupations

  • Physicians and surgeons
  • Therapists (i.e., occupational therapists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, and speech-language pathologists)
  • Registered nurses (RNs)
  • Health-care technologists and technicians (i.e., clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, dental hygienists, emergency medical technicians and paramedics, licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses, pharmacy technicians, and radiologic technologists and technicians)
  • Health practitioners and technical occupations, all others (i.e., dentists, nurse practitioners and nurse midwives, optometrists, pharmacists, physician assistants, podiatrists, and veterinarians

Health-Care Support Occupations

  • Home health aides
  • Personal care aides
  • Nursing assistants
  • Health-care support, all others (i.e., dental assistants, massage therapists, medical assistants, phlebotomists, and physical therapist assistants and aides).

As the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has documented, significant numbers of immigrant college graduates with health-related degrees are facing skill underutilization, in other words are working in low-skilled jobs (for example registered nurses working as health aides) or are out of work. This skill underutilization, often referred to as brain waste, affects 263,000 immigrants in the United States with college degrees—a workforce whose talents could be tapped amid the pandemic.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of health-care occupations were among the fastest-growing occupations, as projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for the 2018-28 period. The more immediate trends now are less clear. Like other parts of the U.S. economy, the health-care sector has suffered job losses since February 2020, which may continue until the economy rebalances. Nonetheless, the main drivers for a greater demand for health-care services—population aging and longevity—remain valid. As in the past, immigrants can be expected to play a significant role in the future of U.S. health care.

This Spotlight provides a demographic and socioeconomic profile of foreign-born health-care workers residing in the United States. The data come primarily from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) and BLS. All data refer to civilian, employed workers ages 16 and older, unless otherwise noted.

Source: Immigrant Health-Care Workers in the United States

As U.S. Health-Care System Buckles under Pandemic, Immigrant & Refugee Professionals Could Represent a Critical Resource

Another good analysis by MPI:

In this time of crisis when health-care workers are not only on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19 but are themselves among its primary targets, it is more essential than ever to have enough qualified professionals to meet the needs of a buckling U.S. medical system. As governors call retired physicians back into service and medical schools graduate students on an accelerated basis, another pool can be tapped: Immigrant and refugee physicians, nurses, and health-care technicians who could offer not only critical professional knowledge but also essential linguistic and cultural skills. Around the globe, a number of countries battling the virus (among them France, Colombia, Spain, Chile, and Ireland) and subnational governments (including New York State, California, New Jersey, and the province of Buenos Aires in Argentina) are actively seeking ways to engage this population.

There are 1.5 million immigrants already employed in the U.S. health-care system as doctors, registered nurses, and pharmacists. At the same time, Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis finds another 263,000 immigrants and refugees with undergraduate degrees in health-related fields are either relegated to low-paying jobs that require significantly less education or are out of work. Along with 846,000 U.S.-born adults whose health-related college degrees are similarly underutilized—a phenomenon MPI has long referred to as “brain waste”— these immigrants represent a potentially important source of staff for the U.S. health corps. And because these immigrants tend to be younger than their U.S.-born counterparts, they represent an important pool of responders to a disease that is particularly dangerous for those 60 and older.

Figure 1. Adults (ages 25 to 64) Whose Health-Related Undergraduate Degrees Are Not Fully Utilized, by Nativity and Place of Education, 2017

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of U.S. Census Bureau 2017 American Community Survey (ACS) data.

Definitions & Methodological Note

Underutilized adults are defined here as civilians between ages 25 and 64 who currently are employed in jobs that require no more than a high school diploma, are unemployed, or are not engaged in the labor force.

Immigrants refers to persons who were not U.S. citizens at birth. This population includes naturalized U.S. citizens, lawful permanent immigrants (or green-card holders), refugees and asylees, certain legal nonimmigrants (including those on student, work, or other temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization. The term U.S. born refers to those born in the United States or abroad to at least one U.S.-citizen parent.

Foreign trained are defined here as immigrants who came to the United States at age 25 or later and who have at least a bachelor’s degree (i.e., they likely obtained their degrees abroad), while U.S. trained are those who arrived before age 25 and obtained their four-year college degrees in the United States.

Methodological note: The analysis here differs from the Migration Policy Institute’s earlier work on immigrant skill underutilization (also known as brain waste), in that for the purposes of examining an urgently needed talent pool that could be tapped during this crisis, it also includes college-educated immigrants of prime working age who not engaged in the labor force. Foreign-trained health-care graduates are significantly more likely to be out of the labor force than their U.S.-trained immigrant counterparts and could thus represent a substantial potential pool of workers. This analysis finds 140,000 immigrants with health-related degrees ages 25-64 are not employed and not looking for work, representing 53 percent of all 263,000 immigrants with a four-year health-care degree who are underutilized. Forty percent are employed in jobs requiring no more than a high school degree, and the remaining 7 percent are unemployed.

MPI research over the years has shown that a sizeable share of immigrant college graduates faces significant challenges in securing jobs that take full advantage of their prior education and work experience. The analyses presented here affirm that this underutilization is common among the foreign born who hold undergraduate degrees in the health-care field. What, then, are some of the most policy relevant characteristics of this population?

Place of Education

Where immigrants receive their education matters. Almost two-thirds (or 165,000) of all underutilized health-care immigrant workers likely obtained their health-related education outside the United States. The underemployment of these health-care professionals is in some ways not surprising: employers may be reluctant to hire workers with degrees from universities that are unfamiliar to them. Also, immigrants may lack important professional networks that connect them to employment opportunities or a sufficient level of professional English competence to get promoted. Further, their credentials may not be aligned with those required by U.S. health-care systems and licensing authorities. And it is common knowledge that obtaining U.S. licenses to work is difficult, time-consuming, and costly.


As with health-care workers overall, college-educated immigrant and U.S.-born workers stuck in jobs requiring no more than a high school degree or out of work are overwhelmingly female (roughly 80 percent). They differ, though, in their age distribution—one factor that may be important in combatting a disease that is particularly dangerous for older persons. These immigrants tend to be younger than their U.S.-born counterparts: 56 percent are between ages 25 and 44, versus 45 percent among U.S.-born underutilized health professionals.

These immigrants also have long years of U.S. residence, with 62 percent having been in the United States for more than a decade. On the one hand, many may have gained or improved their English proficiency and acquired U.S. work experience. On the other hand, many may have been outside the health-care field for years, and their skills and education may have atrophied.

Degree Field

Nursing is the most common degree held by underutilized immigrants and refugees. Approximately 118,000 immigrants with undergraduate degrees in nursing are underutilized, representing 45 percent of all immigrant-health care professionals working below their skill level or sidelined. The data analyzed here indicate that many are working in low-paying jobs such as nursing assistants, home health aides, personal care aides, or as domestic help. Another 10 percent received undergraduate degrees in pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, followed by 8 percent with treatment therapy and 5 percent with medical technology technician degrees.

Language Skills

Underutilized immigrant health-care professionals could provide an important linguistic and cultural resource for their own communities now, during this time of crisis, and in the future. More than two-thirds are English proficient, that is, they speak English very well or only English. They also speak a variety of languages other than English, including Spanish (17 percent), Tagalog (15 percent), Chinese (6 percent), Korean and Arabic (4 percent each), as well as Haitian, Russian, Vietnamese, Hindi, Portuguese, French, and Telugu (2 percent each).

States of Residence

State Estimates of Health-Care Professional Underutilization

Find estimates of the size of the population of health-care professionals, immigrant and U.S. born alike, experiencing skill underutilization, as well as their place of education, for the top 20 states. Click here for the data.

More than 60 percent of underutilized immigrant health-care professionals live in traditional immigrant-receiving states. California has, by far, the largest number of such workers: 24 percent of the national total, or 60,000 workers. Other top states: Florida, 11 percent (or 29,000); Texas, 9 percent (23,000), New York, 8 percent (22,000), New Jersey, 5 percent (14,000), and Illinois, 4 percent (11,000).

Figure 2. Immigrant Adults (ages 25 to 64) Whose Health-Related Undergraduate Degrees Are Not Fully Utilized, by State of Residence, 2017

Source: MPI tabulation of Census Bureau 2017 ACS data.

Tapping This Talent?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the skills of 263,000 immigrants and refugees with college degrees in health-related fields had not been put to the best use in the U.S. labor market. However, in a time of crisis with growing shortages of staff in hospitals, community clinics, health departments, and testing centers, many of these immigrants could be mobilized and re-employed in jobs across the health-care field.

While state governments and medical systems must remain vigilant about the quality of health-care services their residents receive, some opportunities to make adjustments to the arduous licensing process exist. States could speed up the certification process by allowing immigrant health-care professionals who pass all requirements except the final exam to work under supervision, or they could extend short-term, provisional approval for a limited set of tasks. The data presented here indicate that workers with nursing training could represent a promising target group. These nurses could be employed in assisting with testing for the virus. At minimum, these immigrant health-care professionals could be engaged in providing language and cultural assistance to overburdened health systems and frightened patients alike.

As hospital emergency rooms, community health centers, and other medical offices reel from the tremendous strain that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, immigrant health-care professionals whose skills have not been fully utilized represent a promising candidate pool for policymakers, licensing authorities, and health-care providers to tap in a moment of national crisis.

Source: www.migrationpolicy.org/news/us-health-care-system-coronavirus-immigrant-professionals-untapped-resource

Immigrant Workers: Vital to the U.S. COVID-19 Response, Disproportionately Vulnerable

Of note. Haven’t looked at immigrant status but visible minorities provides a similar picture (mix of immigrants and subsequent generations). Some visible minority groups such as Latin American and Blacks are more concentrated in support positions than other groups:

Six million immigrant workers are at the frontlines of keeping U.S. residents healthy and fed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the foreign born represented 17 percent of the 156 million civilians working in 2018, they account for larger shares in coronavirus-response frontline occupations: 29 percent of all physicians and 38 percent of home health aides, for example. They also represent significant shares of workers cleaning hospital rooms, staffing grocery stores, and producing food.

The foreign born also are over-represented in sectors most immediately devastated by mass layoffs: Restaurants and hotels, office cleaning services, and in-home child care, among them. All told, another 6 million immigrants work in industries that MPI has identified as some of the hardest hit, meaning that collectively 12 million immigrant workers are at the leading edge of the response to and impacts from the pandemic.

As dramatic economic contraction brings hardship to tens of millions in the coming months, the difficulties will be exacerbated for many immigrant workers because of limited access to safety-net systems and to federal relief, both for those who are unauthorized and some who are legally present. The estimated $2 trillion pandemic aid package makes many immigrants eligible for cash relief payments; others, such as most U.S.-citizen or legal immigrant spouses who file taxes jointly with unauthorized immigrants, will not be eligible.

Noncitizens also face restricted access to existing safety-net programs. While green-card holders, those on a temporary work visa, and individuals with Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals can access unemployment insurance, most noncitizens cannot turn to the federal, means-tested benefits, including food stamps, that other workers tap in times of need. And immigrant workers face additional vulnerabilities, including smaller incomes and lower rates of health insurance coverage.

Crisis within a Crisis: Immigration in the United States in a Time of COVID-19

Good overview by Muzaffar Chishti and Sarah Pierce of MPI on the cumulative impact of US immigration restrictions and related policies on COVID-19 (conclusion):

Relief for Some, But Not All

Once the severity of the health and economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic became evident, Congress passed—and the president signed—two emergency aid packages offering economic and other assistance. A far larger, “Phase 3” estimated $2 trillion-dollar package has been approved by the Senate, awaiting House action. It would provide important medical coverage for Americans who are uninsured and an economic cushion in the form of cash payments, extended unemployment insurance benefits, and other income supports for many impacted by the sharp economic decline and rising joblessness. But the aid package excludes a large section of the noncitizen population. For the medical benefits, the bill excludes even a substantial-share of green-card holders—those who have held legal permanent residence for less than five years. And the economic relief and tax rebate provisions exclude more than 4 million immigrant workers, typically unauthorized, who pay income taxes but use Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) instead of Social Security numbers to file their tax returns. Advocates had been able to get these provisions included in a House draft that ultimately was not considered; they undoubtedly will plan to push for these to be addressed in future coronavirus-relief legislation.

Immigrant advocates note that foreign-born workers, legal and unauthorized alike, not only constitute a sizeable number of those in critical occupations on the frontlines of fighting the pandemic, they also work disproportionately in non-salaried, nonpermanent jobs, living close to the margin. At the other end of the debate, some conservatives have argued in favor of reserving taxpayer funds for the U.S. born, and in particular object to including unauthorized immigrants. Yet excluding workers who are among the most vulnerable in society from critical safety-net benefits would compromise the effectiveness of the entire aid package and recovery from a virus that makes no distinction based on national origin, immigration status, or income level, experts have noted.

There are no parallels to the multidimensional challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the United States and the world in this globalized and economically interdependent era in which we live. The vast public health crisis and resulting economic freefall require a global response, and certainly a unified and robust national response where all institutions and individuals are responding to their fullest potential. A set of policies that intentionally or inadvertently discourages a subset of the population from fully participating—without fear or repercussion—in this war against the invisible enemy compromises the wellbeing and lives of all of us.

Source: new article

Coronavirus Is Spreading across Borders, But It Is Not a Migration Problem

Good commentary and analysis by MPI researchers:

Governments around the world have been dipping into the migration management toolbox to demonstrate decisive action in the face of a global pandemic. More than 130 countries have implemented border closures, travel restrictions, prohibitions on arrivals from certain areas, and heightened screening. These steps initially were taken to try to block COVID-19 from crossing borders and later as part of a raft of mobility restrictions seeking to mitigate further spread.

While these restrictions failed in their initial goal of preventing the breakout from seeping across international borders—the virus is now in every corner of the world save Antarctica—they may be more effective as governments shift their focus from containment to mitigation.

In a matter of one week, a handful of bans has given way to sweeping shutdowns of international travel, alongside aggressive interior restrictions on movements. Travel bans are a blunt tool to stem spread from one country to another (as authorities struggle to distinguish between affected and unaffected travelers), yet they are a logical part of the toolkit in the context of social distancing and restricting all forms of movement.

The Containment Phase

The pressure to wall countries off from the virus has been fierce; yet in a globalized world where millions of people cross borders on a regular day, hermetically sealing one country off from its neighbors to prevent the arrival of an airborne threat is next to impossible. First, borders are porous, so even the most sweeping legal restrictions will not prevent all crossings. At best, they may delay the arrival of the disease, but this benefit comes at an enormous social and economic cost—essentially grinding international ties to a halt at a time when cooperation to overcome a common threat (including by sharing medical knowledge and allowing health workers to circulate freely) is more critical than ever. And at worst, mobility restrictions may encourage deception (to elude both border and health screenings), which is highly undesirable in a public health emergency where it is paramount to identify and track those who are infected. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) is clear that blanket travel bans from affected areas rarely achieve their goals.

The Wrong Tools for Containment?

The threat of a pandemic has spilled over into border closures in more recent history as well. Fear of Zika virus (2016), Ebola fever (2014), and H1N1 influenza (2009) all led to calls for tighter restrictions on international entries in a range of countries. Yet applying border controls to the spread of disease across international boundaries is like trying to catch water with a sieve. It has little chance of stopping all possible threats.

It is also unclear whether tools such as visa restrictions and prohibitions on certain categories of arrivals—designed to screen for bad actors”—can be adapted to address a very different kind of threat. Targeting nationality, for example, may be a blunt tool in the realm of public health; the Hungarian government banning Iranian asylum seekers, for instance, fails to account for those who may have been living in closed camps in Turkey for years. And airlines do not have systems in place to collect (and verify) even basic contact information that would allow individuals to be traced should they become infected. By some estimates, this technology is more than a year away.

In the containment phase of the novel coronavirus (before WHO acknowledged on March 11 that the new pathogen would likely spread across the globe) attempts to reduce the pool of people arriving from high-risk countries may have had limited effect for a number of reasons, including difficulties reliably screening people on entry. And curtailing some forms of mobility while allowing certain types of travelers (including returning citizens and diplomats) to cross borders—even as these groups, too, have been tied to spreading the disease—can undermine the whole purpose of containment.

Aside from failing to achieve their public health goals at the containment stage, these measures may also lead to unintentional perverse outcomes. Enacting blanket travel bans at the start of a crisis could potentially incentivize more travel from an outbreak zone to get around these hurdles. Under President Trumps proclamation, Chinese nationals can only apply for visas to the United States from another country; this could incentivize unnecessary travel to a country like Japan.

These measures simultaneously cast the net too widely (snaring some who are not a threat) and far too narrowly (missing those who are). But rather than improve passenger data or information-sharing, countries have been closing borders rapid-fire. The United States, for example, in early February banned the entry of certain arrivals from China and Iran. Colombia closed its border to Venezuelans, as well as to arrivals from Asia and Europe. And in an early precursor to more significant European border closures, Austria and Germany began imposing checks on trains and vehicles arriving from Italy in early March.

Weaponizing Fear

Bold measures taken in the name of containing the spread of disease across international boundaries are often fig leaves for broader aims: reducing undesirable” migration and curtailing the openness that has been blamed for uncontrolled movements of asylum seekers and migrants. Announcing the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to nonessential travel, Trump described the border restrictions as necessary to stop “mass global migration.”

Other countries seeking curbs on immigration, Greece and Hungary, for example, have announced they will refuse to accept any asylum seekers for a month. And in some cases, governments have exploited public health concerns to expedite plans in morally gray areas. For instance, the Greek government has leveraged fears about the spread of coronavirus to justify its controversial plan to build closed” camps (essentially detention centers) for asylum seekers who reach Greek shores.

Yet even countries historically friendly to immigration are taking sweeping measures, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, announcing that Canada would cease to accept asylum seekers from the United States at unofficial crossings.

Populist politicians who rail against migration are attempting to draw a clear link between migrants and coronavirus, in face of no evidence to support this. Italys former interior minister, far-right politician Matteo Salvini, traced his countrys outbreak, without justification, to the docking of a rescue ship with 276 African migrants in Sicily. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared: Our experience is that foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners.”

Migrants have long been scapegoated for the public health concerns of the day. Cholera was nicknamed the Irish disease” in the 1830s. Ellis Island screenings in the late 19th century would send people back for contagious diseases such as trachoma and ringworm. In the 1980s and early 1990s there was vigorous debate in the United States over whether being HIV-positive should disqualify prospective immigrants (a ban imposed in 1993 was not lifted until 2010). And today a definitional battle is taking place over COVID-19, with some insisting on referring to it as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan flu.”

Nativist politicians across Europe and the Americas have found they can score easy points by casting the blame for societys ills on the other,” and by stoking moral panic for political gain. Fear is being weaponized. And these fears are taking root in fertile ground: facts are being questioned like never before, and todays social media environment is rampant with conspiracy theories (such as the idea that the coronavirus is a bioweapon engineered by the Chinese or even the CIA).

The Mitigation Phase and an Effective Way Forward

The actions, and in some cases bombastic rhetoric, around closing borders are taking public attention away from where it is better spent: measures that actually work to stop the spread of disease once it is in the community. In the mitigation stage, curtailing travel to limit human interaction may prove effective precisely because all other movements are similarly restricted under a larger social distancing strategy.

The mutual agreement between the United States and Canada to close their common border to nonessential travel, for example, is a logical extension of steps both countries are taking to encourage people to stay home. Some of the measures taken within the European Union, where several Member States have temporarily reintroduced border controls, are sensible extensions of domestic decisions to limit movement.

However, it is essential to implement these measures in ways that advance public health goals—which means not stopping at restricting travel, but aggressively testing, tracking, and limiting exposure. Enhanced screenings at airports that put large crowds into very close physical proximity for hours, as occurred recently at a number of U.S. airports, flouts these principles and increases the risk of transmission. Failing to obtain travelers travel and contact details (given the likelihood of asymptomatic transmission) or letting individuals come from high-risk destinations without any medical screening at arrival likewise may undermine any benefit gained from restricting movement.

Governments are under huge pressure to place the bulk of their resources on the most visible measures, including at borders. But these controls are only one piece of the puzzle. Many communities are already at risk of dire outbreaks (particularly those with individuals of precarious legal status who may fear coming forward to authorities or feel pressure to continue work despite symptoms), so these controls must be combined with other interventions. Among them, medical testing, limiting contact with exposed individuals, outreach to vulnerable populations, and ensuring everyone has access to medical care in the event of infection.

There also are broader philosophical considerations, including whether immigration enforcement operations, and widespread detention of asylum seekers and other migrants awaiting immigration hearings, may conflict with other public interest imperatives during this crisis. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for example, has wisely decided to temporarily suspend most nonurgent enforcement actions (committing not to arrest people at health-care facilities, for example). However, lingering fear and mistrust within unauthorized communities, and contradictory messaging from government authorities, may still keep people from seeking care.

Governments need to find a way to respond to legitimate public concerns without scaremongering, which risks eroding already weak public trust. And while a threat that has now reached global pandemic proportions has sparked a nation-first” approach in many countries, the solution to complex transnational challenges facing our societies must by necessity be an international one. Rather than focusing inward on protecting their own, countries should be reaching out to other countries—including those where the virus first surfaced—to help find solutions.

Source: Coronavirus Is Spreading across Borders, But It Is Not a Migration Problem

Trump’s hard-line immigration rule could disproportionately hurt Asian immigrants

Not the first article examining the likely effects on particular groups and likely not the last:

A hard-line Trump administration immigration policy that would deny immigrants residency if they are deemed likely to become a “public charge,” or need public assistance, could significantly affect the Asian American community.

The Department of Homeland Security rule, which was published in August, greatly expanded the definition of who is considered a public charge. Given the community’s use of certain social services, high rates of limited English proficiency, and heavy reliance on the family reunification system to come to the United States, immigration advocates fear that the rule would create serious barriers for Asian immigrants or those who wish to change their status.

Research from the Migration Policy Institute reveals more than 941,000 recent green card holders would have fallen under the Trump administration rule had it been in effect when they applied. Of those, 300,000 are from Asian countries.

A federal judge temporarily blocked the rule earlier this month, allowing a total of 15 days — which ends Friday — for parties to submit filings. The policy is currently enjoined and cannot be implemented by the administration, but it has already impacted many in the community who fear their use of public benefits could compromise their immigration status.

“The policy itself, the mere suggestion that the administration was considering the policy, has resulted in Asian immigrants and other immigrants pulling out of public benefits,” John C. Yang, executive director of the civil rights nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, told NBC News.

Yang added: “This [rule], to us, is just a made-up reason to exclude certain classes of immigrants.”

The current definition of public charge is rather specific. Those who would need cash assistance or institutionalized care would fall under the category. However the Trump administration’s expanded definition would include individuals who would need food stamps, Medicaid, and Section 8 housing. The administration rationalized the rule, claiming that “self-sufficiency has long been a basic principle of U.S. immigration law.”

Roughly 70 percent to 80 percent of Asian immigrants come to the U.S. through family-based immigration, which means they would be scrutinized under the Trump administration rule. Of the more than 420,000 green cards that were granted to Asian immigrants in Fiscal Year 2017, almost 40 percent were given to immediate family members, while more than 20 percent were given to family-sponsored waiting list registrants.

In some urban areas, the Asian American community experiences particularly high rates of poverty. In New York City, Asian Americans have the highest poverty rate compared to all other racial groups. The racial group has one of the fastest growing populations in poverty. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of Asian Americans in poverty grew by 37 percent and Pacific Islander poverty ballooned by 60 percent, higher compared to any other group. The national increase was significantly lower at 27 percent.

Almost 18 percent of those who participate in government assistance programs are Asian Americans. However those in the community already underuse social services, Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the New York City-based social services nonprofit Asian American Federation, said. Not only would underprivileged immigrants meet challenges in obtaining permanent residency, but Yoo said that the proposed rule would further intimidate them from utilizing public services.

According to the new public charge rule, immigrants would also be assessed on English proficiency. The Asian American population already has the highest proportion of residents who speak a language other than English at home. And more than one-third of Asian American and Pacific Islanders have limited English proficiency.

“The Trump administration has a very narrow view of what types of immigrants are so-called desirable in the United States and frankly it is a racist and xenophobic view,” Yang told NBC News. “That view is that only people who are desirable are already proficient in English, already have a certain level of wealth or high skills.”

Since the rule was proposed back in 2018, roughly 13 percent of immigrant adults are reported to have withdrawn their use of public benefits out of fear of risking their future green card status, according to a report by Urban Institute. Yang added that some individuals who would not be subject to the rule have actually pulled out of public services due to misinformation.

“It does not affect refugees. It does not affect existing citizens,” he said. “We don’t want people to be fearful of using public benefits when they are entitled to use them.”

Asian Americans have long confronted restrictive immigration policies tied to the potential use of social services. The first public charge rule in U.S. history coincided with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The two separate legal rules ultimately carried the same function.

“There’s an absolute linkage between the discrimination of Asians and public charge,” Yang said. “[The first public charge rule and the Chinese Exclusion Act] were rooted in the same thing: which was this notion that Chinese immigrants were coming into the country in numbers that were too large and that they were somehow deemed to be undesirable.”

Yang pointed out that since that time, public charge has been used to exclude other immigrant communities, including Mexican immigrants and those in the Jewish community.

Source: Trump’s hard-line immigration rule could disproportionately hurt Asian immigrants

Changing U.S. Policy and Safe-Third Country “Loophole” Drive Irregular Migration to Canada

Good in-depth study:

Nearly 50,000 asylum seekers entered Canada irregularly via land crossing from the United States over a two-year period beginning in spring 2017—contributing to a doubling in the overall number of asylum requests seen in 2016. Most make their way into Canada via Roxham Road, an unofficial crossing at an otherwise unremarkable country road along the New York-Quebec border.

The surge in asylum filings is the result of a few factors, perhaps most notably U.S. policy changes that have made the United States less hospitable and growing recognition of a “loophole” in the 2004 Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). While the treaty was designed to manage asylum-seeker processing by requiring individuals to apply for protection in the first of the two countries entered, it allows those who reside in or transit through the United States to claim asylum in Canada if they enter between official ports of entry.

Box 1. Methodology

This article presents findings from semi-structured interviews with 290 asylum seekers from more than 50 countries, with a representative sample by country of origin. They had been in Canada from a period of only a few days up to two years. Interviews were conducted from December 2018 to October 2019. They took roughly one hour, and were conducted in the respondent’s language of choice at shelters and community organizations in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, and Montreal.

Recruitment took place using posters and communication through social workers and volunteers. Respondents were identified by their first name only, and offered the choice to use a pseudonym. No identifying or contact information was collected.

Interviews were also conducted with two dozen lawyers, social workers, civil servants, and personnel from government and law enforcement in Canada and the United States.

The majority doing so, according to research undertaken by the author and his research team, only briefly transited the United States before crossing into Canada. Around 60 percent of the 290 asylum claimants interviewed—from a diverse mix of countries including Haiti, Nigeria, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—had spent an average of five days before moving on to Canada. The remainder had lived in the United States for an average of six years.

The increase in asylum seekers has proven a politically and morally fraught issue for the Trudeau government in the lead-up to the October 21 federal election, offering opposition parties and civil-society groups on the right and left alike reason to criticize the centrist Liberals in power. It also has placed new scrutiny in Canada on the Safe Third County Agreement, criticized by conservatives for its role in fostering more asylum claims and on the other side of the spectrum by lawyers and refugee-rights advocates who question whether the United States remains a “safe” country.

This article, which draws from the first year of the “Understanding Emergent Irregular Migration Systems to Canada” research project, presents findings from interviews to explore asylum claimants’ motivations for claiming asylum, information sources, and experiences along their journey and after arrival. It also analyzes the effects of the recent arrivals on Canada, especially regarding the political implications. The goal is to fill a research gap by providing empirical evidence for the drivers of irregular migration to Canada.

U.S. Policy Change as a Driver of Migration to Canada

Increasing irregular arrivals to Canada may be attributed to many factors, including (mis)information spread about the STCA “loophole” through social networks and international media. Insights from interviews with asylum claimants suggest that U.S. policies are a major driver of irregular migration to Canada—though the relationship is not always linear. An increase in arrivals after change in U.S. policy is not unprecedented: discrepancies between U.S. and Canadian refugee determinations in the 1980s led to a “border rush” of predominantly Central and South American asylum seekers. The ensuing backlog in Canada’s asylum system led to the creation of the country’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) and motivated Canada to seek an STCA in the first place.

Causes of the Recent Uptick in Asylum Seekers

The Trump administration’s decision not to extend a long-standing Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation for some 46,000 Haitians was the catalyst for the drastic increase in asylum claims in Canada in 2017. In April 2017, just 140 Haitians crossed into Canada at Roxham Road. The following month, the number increased to 1,355, and to 3,505 that June. Roughly half of the 6,500 Haitians who arrived during the April 2017 – June 2019 period examined, were U.S. residents, with the rest arriving from Haiti and third countries, particularly Brazil. Thus an announced U.S. policy change resulted in roughly 7.5 percent of all Haitians in the United States with TPS choosing Canada rather than risking deportation, moving to a third country, or remaining unauthorized in the United States.

Figure 1. Number of Asylum Seeker Claims on Roxham Road, April 2017-June 2019

Source: Data provided to the author by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) under a memorandum of understanding.

A commensurate number of TPS recipients from countries other than Haiti have not sought asylum in Canada, even as the Trump administration has also moved to end designations for Salvadorans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and others. The lack of similar movement may owe to a number of factors, including the fact that U.S. courts have at least temporarily blocked the upcoming terminations. Obama-era Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials, advocates, and asylum seekers interviewed also noted that Latino immigrants are more politically organized and committed to resisting Trump administration policies.

Still, more than 300,000 people risk losing TPS in early 2020, and in an environment of hostility toward asylum seekers and unauthorized immigrants, more may aim to cross irregularly into Canada, particularly if it appears the courts will not continue being a brake on Trump administration immigration actions.

Table 1. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) Populations in the United States and Expiry Dates

Note: A grant of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) provides recipients protection from removal from the United States, as well as work authorization.
Source: D’Vera Cohn, Jeffrey S. Passel, and Kristen Bialik, “Many Immigrants with Temporary Protected Status Face Uncertain Future in U.S.” Pew Research Center FactTank blog, March 8, 2019, available online.

Beyond the initial rush of Haitians in mid-2017, many others have made the journey after being in the United States for only a short period of time. Roughly 60 percent of respondents used the United States only as a transit state, spending an average of five days. They learned of the crossing from a range of sources, often through social media, YouTube, or word of mouth. Some early respondents, mostly from Nigeria, were reticent to admit that they had planned to come to Canada, and said they had no knowledge of Roxham Road before arriving in the United States. These respondents also offered similar, almost verbatim reasons for asylum. The researchers thus revised their interview structure to focus on the source of information for the Roxham Road route. Several described purchasing asylum narratives from “story sellers” or “travel agents,” typically based on persecution for gender and sexual orientation. While these types of claims are long-standing, narratives also included Donald Trump’s anti-migrant pronouncements and the specter of family separation as the reason for spontaneous transit to Canada. Thus, decisionmakers in Canada must now contend with U.S. policy in assessing claims.

However, most respondents planned to use Roxham Road from the outset. “My husband had Canada in mind for years. He wanted to do it legally, like fill out the forms online. But once he heard about Roxham Road he decided to send us,” said Hadiza, a 39-year-old woman from Niger. “It was a difficult decision. It was me and three kids. My husband had to stay behind. He sent us first and maybe he can come later.”

For these migrants, the unlikelihood of protection contributed to their choice not to remain in the United States. Roughly 20 percent had been denied visitor or skilled immigrant visas to Canada but were able to obtain or already had U.S. visitor visas. Several, predominantly from the DRC, Angola, and Pakistan, said they obtained visas by bribing U.S. consular officials. Restrictive U.S. asylum procedures, more open visa regimes, and corruption thus impact asylum claims in Canada.

Roughly 40 percent of respondents had resided in the United States for a period of years, mostly unauthorized residents who had overstayed a visa or received a negative asylum decision. Unlike many who transited through the United States in days, this group explicitly stated that their reasons were directly tied to U.S. policies.

“This word ‘illegal’ is weird to me, even if I use it about myself,” said Derrick, a 22-year-old from Gabon. “Every day people tell you to go back to your country, that if you’re struggling you should just go. That’s not a life. I’m not a criminal, I don’t hurt people. I just want to work and study.”

Among respondents’ fears were the threat of workplace immigration enforcement operations or law enforcement status checks. The most common catalysts for the decision to use Roxham Road were that a relative or community member had been incarcerated or deported, or that they were running out of funds or appeals in lengthy U.S. asylum procedures. Several said they abandoned claims because of a 2018 policy to schedule new cases in immigration court before older ones, a “last in, first out” policy DHS implemented to deal with the rapidly rising Central American caseload. Regardless, most reported a growing fear from the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant discourse, more frequent discrimination, and anxiety about the fate of their children should they be apprehended. Finally, around 3,500 U.S. citizens had crossed the border during the April 2017-June 2019 period, according to Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), signaling the displacement of mixed-status households with unauthorized immigrant parents and U.S.-citizen children.

Many who arrived in late 2018 or in 2019 had actively researched Roxham Road, which had garnered significant media attention in 2017, often through online searches and conversations with community members, but considered it a last resort. Interview questions asked respondents who resided long term in the United States where Canada ranked among options including return to their country of origin, relocation to a third country, or move elsewhere in the United States, particularly a sanctuary jurisdiction. Most were incredulous about the notion of returning to their country of origin, but would have preferred to remain in the United States were it not for the Trump administration. Canada offered the simplest and safest option.

Transnational Border Crossers

Irregular migration to Canada rapidly became more transnational after receiving attention from mainstream and social media. By late 2017, Nigeria overtook Haiti as the top country of origin, and the number of nationalities diversified significantly.

Table 2. Top 20 Countries of Origin of Roxham Road Asylum Claimants, April 2017- June 2019

Source: IRCC data provided to the author under a memorandum of understanding.

For most who transited the United States over a short period of days, the decision to seek asylum in Canada has less to do with U.S. policy and more to do with finding a solution for a precarious situation. To take one example, many claimants who are considered Yemeni, Palestinian, or Sudanese in official data were born and lived in Saudi Arabia. “Saudi-ization” policies—aimed at increasing the share of native-born Saudis in the workforce—resulted in the termination of these workers’ residence permits. For Yemenis, this means risk of deportation to a country with which they have no connection and one experiencing a humanitarian emergency. Many Palestinians would be rendered stateless. Respondents coming from these types of situations relayed how their social networks were abuzz about the U.S. route to Canada as early as May 2017, offering a new means to fulfill pre-existing desires for mobility.

While those with financial means often fly to the United States, an increasing number, predominantly from Africa, undertook multimonth and even multiyear overland journeys from Brazil, through Central America, to the United States. This comports with global findings that the first people in irregular migration systems are often those with the capital to move quickly, while those with fewer resources take more precarious routes.

The less well-heeled or those unable to secure U.S. visitor visas recounted harrowing danger, including violence and extortion by state security services, criminals, and smugglers; capsized boats on the coast of Colombia; horrific experiences in the Darien Gap jungle in Panama; predation from gangs in Mexico; and waiting in dangerous conditions at the U.S. border. “The jungle in Panama was very, very hard. You’re walking past dead bodies. You spend ten days or two weeks. You have to walk through rivers, over mountains. There are snakes and bandits… You walk for days, from the time the sun comes up until it goes down, and you sleep wherever you lay,” said Naomi, a 22-year-old from Angola. “If a child dies, the parent leaves it behind. If your husband dies, you leave them behind. Because if not, it’s you who will be left behind. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”

(Mis)Information and Social Networks 

Social networks play a strong role in would-be migrants’ decision-making. In the case of Nigerian claimants, for example, Pentecostal churches play a key role planning travel and social connections once in Canada. Refugee claimants from Yemen, Colombia, and a range of African states receive detailed instructions from community members who have already arrived. Some respondents said U.S. aid organizations encourage people to move on to Canada after release from detention.

As in other irregular migration corridors, misinformation and rumors seem to have a strong influence. Whispers of impending enforcement actions in the United States served as a catalyst for several respondents. More often, rumors are spurred by minority-language media and are amplified and distorted through social media. These often have some basis in fact. Recent arrivals reported rumors that the Canadian border will be closed if the Conservatives win the October election, spurring people to hurry on their journeys.

When Trump announced a ban on refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries within days of taking office Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” A number of respondents cited this juxtaposition as a prominent example that Canada was “saving” refugees from the United States. “I was hearing a lot of things about the Prime Minister of Canada. My friend told me they’re welcoming people there. And I thought ‘this is the place I’m supposed to go’,” said Bilal, 25, from Yemen.

It would be disingenuous, however, to claim a tweet was the direct catalyst for migration. The irregular movements to Canada instead owed in a broader sense to the erosion of protection and retreat from norms of asylum in the United States, against which people measured their chances in Canada.

Interviews illustrate that claimants had accurate information about the route, yet little knowledge of the asylum process in Canada. Respondents were surprised by the scale of the flow, wait times for hearings, not immediately receiving housing, and the difficulties in finding child care and work. And while only a few respondents said they would have made a different decision, interviews and DHS data suggest that over the past two years dozens or hundreds of asylum seekers had either returned to their country of origin or used smugglers to re-enter the United States.

A Surprising Lack of Criminality at the Border

In comparison to other irregular migration corridors—and indeed on other legs of the journey—there is remarkably little criminality at the U.S.-Canada border. The route existed long before Roxham Road made headlines. It generally consists of transit by bus or private car to Plattsburgh, New York, and taxi companies transporting people to the border. Individuals with large families or health issues, or those who fear interactions with U.S. immigration enforcement, use a network of private drivers. None of this activity amounts to smuggling under U.S. or Canadian law, and there is very little evidence of abuse while people move within the United States.

A small number reported intimidation by taxi drivers in Plattsburgh. In the early days, taxi companies overcharged for the 25-mile drive to Roxham Road. In May 2019, the New York attorney general convicted the owner of one company of systematically overcharging. This trend has abated, and most respondents relayed either no meaningful interactions or acts of kindness from drivers, who calm agitated people and explain the process at the border.

The most significant exploitation is in Canada, particularly by immigration consultants and lawyers. In several cases—in collaboration with agents in the United States—consultants from migrants’ national or linguistic community convinced individuals to come to Canada. Such consultants offer a “full-service” fee, including transportation to the border, access to a safe house in Canada (which is unnecessary), and promises to circumvent Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) wait times (which is not possible). They then extract as much money as possible before abandoning claimants. Other respondents, primarily from Latin America, have reported lawyers charging exorbitant rates for paperwork that could be covered by legal aid organizations. As Nadya, a 35-year-old woman from Colombia, explained: “The agent charged us $1,500, and put us in touch with a lawyer in Canada, [who] said it was $6,000, then $1,500 each to get a work permit. He said could get us work and we could pay him back. Once we got to Montreal there was a group of Latino lawyers, [who] explained we would get free legal aid. We asked, ‘How much do we have to pay [for] a work permit?’ It’s then we realized he was trying to take advantage of us.” Finally, there is some evidence that Mexican and Nigerian claimants arrive owing debts for passage and are immediately recruited to work under the table for temporary labor agencies.

These types of exploitation pale in comparison to the abuse and danger reported along irregular migration routes elsewhere around the globe. Most interviewees reported positive experiences with Canadian officials and consider the system fair despite long wait times. Understood in a global context, claiming asylum in Canada remains a safe process.

Impacts on Canada

The backlog at Canada’s IRB, a tribunal that hears refugee claims, had grown to more than 79,000 cases as of August 2019, with average wait time of two years for first hearings. A 2019 auditor general’s report found that wait times could increase to five years by 2024 if the number of claims remains constant. The increase has strained shelter capacity in major cities, particularly Montreal and Toronto. Polling by the Angus Reid Institute suggests that while most Canadians remain in favor of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers, they overestimate the number of refugees present, see irregular migration as a crisis, and those entering at Roxham Road as “queue jumpers” or “bogus refugees.” Attacks on shelters and demonstrations against housing asylum seekers in Toronto, and far-right protests at shelters in Montreal and on the border in Lacolle, Quebec have occurred.

The opposition Conservative Party of Canada has accused the government of losing control of the border. In late 2018, the party took a page from the playbook of Europe’s far-right populists, claiming the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration would mean ceding sovereignty to the United Nations. The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party refused to cooperate with the federal government over shelters and housing for asylum seekers, and made the unprecedented move of canceling legal aid for refugee claimants, which is a crucial part of the asylum process. The goal was to foster chaos in the lead-up to the election and shift the burden to Quebec, a crucial electoral battleground.

It has also been expensive. After lobbying from the legal and advocacy community, the federal government announced CAD $26.8 million in funding to address the legal aid shortfall. The 2018 budget allocated $72 million for capacity-building at IRB, and the 2019 budget an additional $1.2 billion over five years. Providing shelter space for asylum seekers has cost cities somewhere in the range of $150 million. The political challenge is that effective policy requires administrative solutions, while critics can mobilize narratives of economic migrants gaming the asylum system as a result of uncontrolled borders.

The government has sought to balance capacity building with restrictive policies. In 2018 it created a new Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, appointing a tough-on-crime ex-police chief from Toronto. It also changed the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to prevent asylum shopping by denying access for people who previously sought protection in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom. The change was roundly criticized by refugee-rights advocates and has caused significant uncertainty for both asylum seekers and the legal community. Officials interviewed on the condition of anonymity confirmed it is a pre-emptive measure in case of U.S. policies that might spur more migration, particularly in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Loophole or Safety Valve?

Much of the asylum debate in Canada has been about closing the STCA “loophole.” The left-leaning New Democratic Party and many academics, lawyers, and refugee advocates have called for Canada to suspend the accord, on grounds the United States is no longer a safe country for asylum seekers. Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees are challenging its constitutionality. The Conservative Party has taken the opposite position, promising to extend the agreement to what has been long heralded as the “world’s longest undefended border.”

Applying the agreement between ports of entry would require vast new funding for federal police, who would be tasked with apprehending and detaining thousands of people. The result would create more criminalized smuggling markets, make migrants vulnerable to trafficking, create precarious undocumented populations, and push people to more dangerous routes. It would also fundamentally damage Canada’s global identity.

On the other hand, suspending the Safe Third Country Agreement would likely result in more asylum claimants, given peoples’ decisions have been significantly affected by ever-more hardline U.S. policies and rumors of more open Canadian ones.  Those arriving at regular ports of entry would still increase IRB backlogs. And the move would likely backfire politically, with voters potentially rewarding anti-refugee political platforms, as in Europe and the United States.

Restrictive policies are unlikely to stem the flow of people, and Canada has no leverage in negotiations with the White House over the STCA. Likewise, unilaterally suspending participation in the accord risks riling the U.S. government at a time when the Trump administration is limiting access to asylum and attempting to compel other states to take on the responsibility for hosting refugees.

While perhaps counterintuitive, the status quo with regards to the Safe Third County Agreement is a viable option. Roxham Road is well managed. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) conduct routinized security screening and first-line admissibility checks. The majority of interviewees took pains to mention they were treated humanely, in sharp contrast to experiences at other borders. Volunteers who monitor the crossing relayed that while there were instances of intimidating behavior by the RCMP in 2017, they are now rare because of the standardization of procedures, permanent infrastructure, and observation by volunteers. People arrive safely, and without criminal networks.

While politically fraught in the current context, Canada receives a small number of asylum seekers in comparison to other refugee-receiving countries. It has an established and well-funded settlement sector, and refugee-status determination procedures are largely fair. Staying the course until the 2020 U.S. elections would allow for capacity-building and long-term planning that bucks the global trend of reactionary policies in liberal democracies.


This article is part of a research project, “Understanding Emergent Irregular Migration Systems to Canada,” funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and hosted by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University and the Global Migration Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto.