Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen was warned in March that the flow of migrants entering Canada illegally risked turning into a larger problem — months before this week's surge of border crossings began, documents obtained by CBC News show.
The briefing prepared for Hussen by his top bureaucrat in March noted the trends in illegal crossings were continuing "despite strong collaboration among Canadian agencies and with United States counterparts" and that a "major humanitarian or security event could create an urgent need to revisit existing policies."
The memorandum prepared by deputy minister Marta Morgan came as Hussen prepared for a March 10 face-to-face meeting with then U.S. secretary of homeland security John F. Kelly in Ottawa. Kelly has since been named White House Chief of Staff by President Donald Trump.
The documents were obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.
But in an interview with CBC Radio's The House, Hussen said the flow of migrants crossing illegally into Canada has not reached a crisis level that would demand significant policy change.
"What we are dealing with is definitely a very high, steady increase in numbers, and it is obviously taxing our agencies and our borders, but we are able to redeploy resources and personnel as needed and are able to deal with the situation as it unfolds," Hussen told David Cochrane, guest host of The House.
In the month of January, the RCMP intercepted 245 asylum claimants illegally crossing into Canada from the United States near Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que. This week, the number had grown to hundreds of migrants a day, a flow that is anticipated to increase.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed Hussen's reassurances during a scrum with reporters at an event near Ottawa on Friday, saying Canada has the resources and the capacity to deal with the sudden rise in asylum seekers.
Trudeau said Canada remains an open and compassionate country when it comes to refugees, and that staying that way requires making sure Canadians know that the system is working properly.
Not a 'mass arrival'
Despite the dramatic increase in asylum seekers crossing illegally in Quebec, Hussen told The House the current number of migrants entering Canada is not a "mass arrival" that demands a policy change.
- Hussen discourages 'irregular' border crossings by asylum seekers
- Waves of asylum seekers keep coming at illegal border crossing in Quebec
"Obviously if the numbers keep going higher and higher we would have to make sure we find additional ways to relieve pressure from those border crossings, including near Lacolle, Que.," Hussen said.
'Anyone who is in the United States who is intending to come to Canada to make an asylum claim should do so in the United States and not embark on what could potentially be a dangerous journey across our border.' - Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen
The number of migrants being held in border agency and RCMP processing facilities in that area, including many families with young infants, is so high that asylum seekers are forced to sleep outside, with only a tent canopy for shelter. Other detainees are sleeping on the floor indoors, using pieces of cardboard as mattresses. Some of the migrants told CBC News that access to food was limited.
The federal government is already working closely with Quebec to ease the pressure brought on by the influx of arrivals, including redirecting eligibility hearings to other provinces, increased investment in processing facilities and the establishment of a working group between the Immigration Department, Canada Border Service Agency and RCMP, Hussen said.
The flow of asylum seekers crossing into Quebec has been largely driven by the approximately 50,000 Haitian migrants living in the United States who believe they could be deported by January.
The Trump administration has threatened to revoke a program granting them temporary immigration status created following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed an estimated 300,000 people.
Haitians currently living in the United States should make asylum claims in that country, rather than engaging in "asylum shopping," Hussen said.
"We believe very strongly that the United States' domestic asylum system is safe, has due process, has appeal rights, and anyone who is in the United States who is intending to come to Canada to make an asylum claim should do so in the United States and not embark on what could potentially be a dangerous journey across our border," he said.
Safe 3rd Country Agreement 'does work'
The Safe Third Country Agreement, an accord signed between Canada and the United States that requires asylum seekers to make their claim in the first safe country they arrive in, remains effective, said Hussen.
"It does work. At ports of entry, people are returned when they try to claim asylum at ports of entry. If they don't meet the exemptions of the Safe Third Country Agreement, they are returned to the United States, they are turned back and told to make their asylum claims in the United States. So there are a number of people who are turned back at all our ports of entry on a daily basis."
"The agreement works well for Canada and is a good management system between two countries to manage asylum claims."