OTTAWA — In late October, starkly worded warning signs began appearing on the Canadian border with New York state and Vermont aimed at discouraging would-be asylum seekers fleeing the United States.
“Stop. It is illegal to cross the border here or any place other than a Port of Entry. You will be arrested and detained if you cross here.”
“Not everyone is eligible to make an asylum claim,” reads a second sign. “Claiming asylum is not a free ticket into Canada.”
As the Trump administration signals that it may soon remove the Temporary Protected Status designation from more than 300,000 Central Americans and Haitians, threatening them with deportation, Canadian officials are bracing for a new wave of asylum seekers flooding over the border.
Last week, acting U.S. homeland security secretary Elaine Duke announced that she was lifting protected status for 2,500 Nicaraguans, effective January 2019. And while she extended the same protection for 57,000 Hondurans until July 2018, she warned that the protection may end at that time.
The U.S. government decided to protect both groups from deportation following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch in 1999, and the measures were repeatedly renewed until this year. Duke said the original conditions justifying that protection “no longer exist.” Canada and its immigrant-friendly policies may be seen as a viable alternative for those reluctant to return to their countries of origin.
In addition to the new signs on the border, the Canadian government said it is increasing its outreach in communities in the United States that are likely to be affected. It also plans to send Spanish- and Creole-speaking members of Parliament to Los Angeles and Miami to meet community leaders and explain Canadian asylum rules. Canada’s 12 consulates in the United States have also been recruited to spread the message that asylum is not automatic.
“We’re absolutely convinced that there will be another wave,” said Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, which represents 10,000 Canadian border agents and other officials. “Are we ready? I don’t think so.”
In July and August, as many as 250 people a day crossed a ditch at the end of Roxham Road in Champlain, N.Y., into rural Quebec, most of them Haitians fearful that the protected status they received after the 2010 earthquake in their country would soon end. (A ruling is expected from the Department of Homeland Security this month.)
The numbers have declined since then, with 50 to 60 migrants crossing daily. Government officials insist they are doing what they can to discourage new arrivals. So far this year, more than 35,000 asylum seekers have landed in the country, up from 24,000 in the same period in 2016.
The summer surge forced officials to house asylum seekers at Montreal's Olympic Stadium and other temporary locations. While the numbers have since receded and the stadium site was closed, border officials recently installed heated trailers at the border in anticipation of continued crossings during the winter.
Of the 13,000 refugee claims filed so far this year by asylum seekers, only 300 had been processed by last month. Half of these asylum seekers were granted refugee status. While they await their hearings, asylum seekers are granted work permits and have access to health care.
For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a new flood of asylum seekers would pose not only a logistical challenge but also a threat to his pro-migrant policies if public opinion sees the influx as a threat.
Earlier this month, the government published a three-year plan aimed at accepting almost 1 million immigrants as permanent residents, with a clear bias toward economic migrants, who will make up 58 percent of the total. The balance will be shared between family and refugee classes.
Public reaction to the plan — which will see intake grow from 300,000 in 2017 to 310,000 in 2018, 330,000 in 2019 and 340,000 in 2020 — has been generally positive with many of the critics, including the government’s council of economic advisers, saying Canada should be accepting even more immigrants.
Canada has an increasingly diverse population, with visible minorities making up 22.3 percent of the population in 2016, according to recently released census figures, compared with 4.7 percent in 1981. By 2036, visible minorities are expected to make up 33 percent of the population.
“Canada is probably the best country in the world to be an immigrant, because we give immigrants a chance to climb the ladder to success,” said Kareem El-Assal, senior research manager at the Conference Board of Canada, a think tank, where he specializes in immigration.
He said Canada’s immigration system works, in part, because the Canadian government helps newcomers integrate through language, skills and job training at a cost of almost a billion dollars a year. Furthermore, immigrants benefit from Canada’s universal health-care system and its good public education and reasonably priced universities.
Public opinion surveys continue to show that Canadians are pro-migration. A survey by the Environics Institute last spring showed that 72 percent of respondents agreed that “overall, migration has a positive impact on the economy.” Yet in the same survey, 54 percent said that “too many immigrants do not accept Canadian values.”
As for those border warning signs, Fortin, the union leader, says that asylum seekers are reading them and then crossing the border anyway.
“It doesn’t seem to have a very big dissuasive effect,” he said.