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Don't assume U.S. minds are made up about Safe Third Country treaty: Canada's envoy

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's administration is not dismissing out of hand the idea of renegotiating the bilateral 2004 treaty that governs the flow of asylum seekers across its northern border, says Canada's ambassador to the U.S.
A family of asylum seekers from Colombia is met by RCMP officers after crossing the border at Roxham Road into Canada Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023 in Champlain, New York. President Joe Biden’s administration is not dismissing out of hand the idea of renegotiating the bilateral 2004 treaty that governs the flow of asylum seekers across its northern border, says Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's administration is not dismissing out of hand the idea of renegotiating the bilateral 2004 treaty that governs the flow of asylum seekers across its northern border, says Canada's ambassador to the U.S.

Kirsten Hillman, in Ottawa to prepare for Biden's impending arrival on Thursday, said the administration understands how the Safe Third Country Agreement impacts the flow of migrants across the Canada-U.S. border.

Since those migrants are travelling in both directions, taking steps to discourage would-be refugees from slipping over the border undetected would be in the interest of both countries, she acknowledged. 

"I think it does benefit both countries, and I actually think they do recognize that," Hillman said in an interview. 

"I would say there's actually a lot of goodwill on the U.S. side to listen to us about this challenge that we're facing."

The agreement, signed in 2002 and implemented in 2004, requires asylum seekers to make their claim in the first country they arrive in, allowing customs agents to turn them away from official Canada-U.S. entry points. 

It does not, however, cover claims made by migrants who manage to enter either country between official crossings, such as at Quebec's Roxham Road, the busiest unofficial entry point in Canada.

More than 39,000 claims were filed in 2022 by people who were intercepted by the RCMP, the vast majority of them in Quebec, prompting Premier François Legault to expressly ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for help. 

Trudeau has acknowledged that the best solution is to renegotiate the treaty, but the U.S. has been widely seen as having no interest in doing so. 

"They do care about this challenge that we are facing," Hillman said. "It just exists in a much broader context that is deeply complicated."

That, of course, includes the vastly more problematic U.S.-Mexico border, where agents and officials reported nearly 2.4 million "encounters" in fiscal 2022 and exceeded the one-million mark in the first five months of fiscal 2023. 

Both the White House and the Prime Minister's Office have acknowledged that irregular migration will be on the agenda for this week's meetings, part of Biden's first visit to Canada since taking office in 2021.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby would not say expressly Wednesday whether the U.S. would support opening the treaty to negotiations. 

"On issues of migration, we're well aware of Canadian concerns. We have concerns of our own," Kirby told the daily White House briefing. 

"There are more people on the move in this hemisphere than there have been since World War Two, and that affects both our countries.... It's a shared hemispheric shared regional challenge, so I have no doubt that they'll discuss it." 

Energy security, ongoing efforts to lower climate emissions, the development and processing of critical minerals and modernizing the shared continental defence system known as Norad will also be on the agenda, he added. 

At last summer's Summit of the Americas, Canada signed on to a holistic approach to a problem that's been manifesting around the world in recent years, exacerbated by the economic impact of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, autocratic leaders and climate change.

Canada agreed to spend $26.9 million in 2022 on slowing the flow of migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as $118 million for progressive initiatives to improve the lives of people where they already live. 

That included $67.9 million to promote gender equality; $31.5 million in health and pandemic response spending; $17.3 million on democratic governance and $1.6 million for digital access and anti-disinformation measures.

"It's not that the U.S. doesn't want to talk to us about the way in which those challenges are manifested at the Canada-U.S. border," Hillman said. 

"That is part of what we are talking about. But it's only part of what we're talking about. What we're really talking about is this crisis in the hemisphere of migration."

It's long been a political problem for Biden, and it's becoming one for Trudeau as well. 

In the U.S., Republicans are fond of touting a hardline, zero-tolerance approach to the southern border, depicting Democrats as soft on immigration. Some even want to see Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas impeached. 

The northern border — long seen as docile by comparison — was dragged into the fray last month with the launch of the Northern Border Security Caucus, a group of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill who say they fear a mounting tide of migrants slipping into the U.S. by way of Canada. 

Trudeau took pains Wednesday to lower expectations of a breakthrough during the president's visit that would resolve the vexing question of Roxham Road.

"This is ... a deep, important, complex issue that involves vulnerable individuals, it involves sovereignty, it involves ensuring our own citizens that we have a strong and effective immigration and asylum system," he said. 

"These are things to be taken seriously. We've been working very closely with the Americans for many months and we hope to have an announcement soon."

The U.S. does have an illegal migration problem at its northern border — and it seems to be getting worse.

From October 2022 through February of this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 68,784 encounters at or near the Canada-U.S. border with people deemed inadmissible, including 13,053 in the last month alone. 

That's more than twice the 31,119 encounters that took place during the same five months the previous year, and more than halfway to the 109,535 reported during the entire 12-month stretch of fiscal 2022. 

It's a problem that demands more than just quick fixes, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Wednesday. 

"It's very important that we continue to work with our partners in the United States, but it's not necessarily something that we need to horse-trade over," Fraser said. 

A lasting solution will require broad multilateral support to address the root causes of irregular migration not just in Canada and the U.S., but across the hemisphere and around the world, he said. 

"Whatever solution we may work towards, as between Canada and the United States, we know that irregular migration is an issue of local concern that's going to require long term co-operation," Fraser said.

"My sense is the United States is willing to be a good partner because they care about these issues more than they want to extract commitments from Canada that serve their exclusive interest." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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