While Trump made campaign promises to build a wall and ramp up deportations, Trudeau swept into office in late 2015 saying he would build on Canada’s already generous reputation for refugee resettlement. Even after the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, as many U.S. governors and presidential candidates spoke of ending the U.S. refugee program, Trudeau promised to keep the Canadian program going and made a show of meeting Syrian refugees at the airport to welcome them to Canada. One grateful family even named their baby Justin Trudeau.
When Trump rolled out his executive order in late January banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” The website of the Canadian Citizenship and Immigration services department has a banner that reads #WelcomeRefugees.
Trudeau may have gotten more than he bargained for
By casting Canada as a haven while the United States clamps down on immigration, Trudeau effectively encouraged an estimated 11,000 or more people to cross the border into Canada. Some asylum seekers came despite harsh winter conditions, risking frostbite.
Canada’s immigration policy considers the United States a “safe” country
However, Canada’s current migration crisis is shaped in large part by restrictions introduced by the 2002 Safe Third Country Agreement. This measure prohibits people from seeking asylum at an airport or any other port of entry to Canada from the United States, because the United States is presumed to be a safe country for asylum seekers. To seek asylum in Canada, they must sneak into the country and file an asylum claim from within.
In late August, Trudeau attempted to clarify the situation: “You will not be at an advantage if you choose to enter Canada irregularly. You must follow the rules, and there are many.” But Canadian laws offer no other option than to enter the country illegally.
Refugee activists in Canada have opposed the Safe Third Country Agreement for years, even filing a federal lawsuit based on the premise that the United States rejects many asylum claims, particularly gender-based claims, that are consistently successful in Canada. Thus, activists conclude, Canada and the United States should not be considered equivalent countries for many asylum seekers.
As I show in my book comparing the two systems, the United States has a messy and unpredictable refugee-status determination system and far fewer protection options than Canada. In contrast, Canada supplements its refugee program with a number of other humanitarian visa options. The recent influx of asylum seekers has only made these contrasts sharper, giving advocates an even stronger case to argue that the two countries are divergent.
For the foreseeable future, it looks as if Trudeau will have to come up with a plan to deal with increased arrivals of people fleeing war, danger and discrimination in their home countries — as well as a more unwelcoming environment in the United States.
Canada’s reputation for generosity is at stake
If Trudeau orders more vigilant border patrols or begins to refuse asylum requests from clandestine arrivals, it would be a radical departure for a country with a long-standing reputation for generosity in this area. Canada is the only country to have won the Nansen medal, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ highest honor for refugee protection efforts. Since the Vietnam War era, Canada has consistently resettled refugees in numbers that are notably high for a country with such a small population.
How has Canada managed to be so generous? It has had an enormous buffer zone between it and the developing world: the United States. Canada has maintained an extremely high level of control over refugee resettlement, sometimes hand-selecting refugees from abroad, and it has tended to see very low levels of spontaneous arrival at the border.
Now that the United States has become a “sending” country, Canada is having its day of reckoning. Trudeau is under pressure to crack down on border crossers, but an alternative response would be to repeal the Safe Third Country Agreement. That action would stop rewarding people for crossing the border illegally, and it would save lives by reducing dangerous cross-border traffic in remote areas.
Rebecca Hamlin is an assistant professor of legal studies in the department of political science at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of “Let Me Be a Refugee: Administrative Justice and the Politics of Asylum in the United States, Canada, and Australia” (Oxford 2014). Follow her on Twitter @hamlinr1.