Why are people illegally crossing the border into Canada?

The promised travel ban and immigration crackdown by U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be prompting many to head north. 

This week the UN refugee agency's representative in Canada, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, visited the crossing at Lacolle, Que., to observe the process and speak with asylum seekers. In an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, he said many people told him they were fleeing what they felt was an unwelcoming climate in the U.S.

"The rhetoric in the U.S. against foreigners, migrants, refugees and against specific groups has prompted some of them to feel they were potentially at risk in the U.S., of not having access to a fair process in the U.S., and those decided to come to Canada," he told host Rosemary Barton.

While some of the migrants are leaving the U.S. because they are there illegally or are undocumented, many of the migrants Beuze spoke with had valid residency in the U.S., but wanted to come to Canada because it is "a more welcoming country."

Some of the migrants are making the trek at great personal risk this winter, crossing frozen fields and stumbling through snowbanks.

They're using these routes instead of official border crossings to avoid the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which can be applied at official land border points, train crossings and airports.

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A man runs for the border after taking his family's passports from a U.S. border patrol officer as he was detained after his family crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Que. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

What is the Safe Third Country Agreement?

Under the agreement, refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in, unless they qualify for an exception spelled out in the agreement.

Anyone who doesn't meet an exception would have a request for entry into Canada automatically rejected.

The Safe Third Country Agreement applies only to refugee claimants who are trying to enter at official land border crossings, by train or at airports.

It applies at airports only if the person seeking refugee protection in Canada has been refused refugee status in the U.S. and is in transit through Canada after being deported from the U.S.

It was signed on Dec. 5, 2002, as part of the U.S.-Canada Smart Border Action Plan in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. That plan aimed to strengthen North American security while keeping a free flow for trade and commerce across the border.

The agreement was to help both governments manage access to the refugee system in each country for people crossing the Canada-U.S. land border. The two countries signed the agreement on Dec. 5, 2002, and it came into effect on Dec. 29, 2004.

So far, the U.S. is the only country that is designated as a safe third country by Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, but other countries could be added in future. The factors considered for designation include:

  • Whether a country is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1984 Convention Against Torture.
  • The country's policies and practices with respect to claims under those conventions.
  • The country's human rights record.
  • Whether it is has signed an agreement on sharing responsibility around claims for refugee protection.

The NDP has joined many immigration lawyers in calling on the federal government to suspend the agreement for 90 days, arguing that the pact is forcing people to put their lives and limbs at risk.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said there is no plan to change or halt the agreement.

What happens once they cross?

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is in charge of enforcing Canadian legislation at designated ports of entry, while the RCMP are responsible for enforcing the law between ports of entry.

Anyone who is detected by the RCMP outside official points of entry will be warned they are entering the country illegally and advised of the nearest official border crossing point.

If they proceed they will be intercepted and arrested. After being taken into police custody, the individuals will be questioned and undergo identification checks.

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Family members are helped into Canada by RCMP officers along the U.S.-Canada border near Hemmingford, Que. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Once the individuals are cleared by the RCMP, they are turned over to CBSA for processing.  

Beuze said he witnessed people being dealt with in a rapid and professional manner. He said the RCMP are able to screen people in a matter of hours.

"It was a very smooth process," he said. 

When a person makes a claim for refugee protection, the CBSA will determine whether it is legitimate under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. That process includes an interview, fingerprinting and photos, as well as security and criminal record checks.

If the claim is deemed eligible, the file is transferred to the Immigration and Refugee Board.

If it's not, the person may be removed.

The CBSA can detain persons if they can't be properly identified, if they are considered a potential threat, or if there's a risk they could fail to show up at their hearing.

What are the numbers of people crossing illegally?

Officials are reporting a jump in the number of asylum seekers, most notably in Manitoba and Quebec, and that it is stretching resources. It is difficult to get an accurate number of how many people have illegally crossed and subsequently claimed refugee status in Canada.

A Winnipeg-based agency in Manitoba that helps the asylum seekers is aware of about 139 refugees who crossed into Canada near the border-town community of Emerson, Man., since Jan. 1.

There is also a reported spike in people crossing illegally in Hemmingford, Que.

Breaking down the numbers of illegal border crossings into Canada1:00

What's next?

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has asked the federal government to lead a co-ordinated approach, calling it a "national issue."

On Thursday, he announced funding for 14 emergency housing units, $70,000 for a refugee response co-ordinator and $110,000 to help cover paralegal services and transportation costs.

In Ottawa, the Conservatives are pressing the government to develop a plan and to back it up with greater resources for the RCMP and CBSA. On Thursday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government is conducting detailed analysis to determine where the individuals are coming from in the U.S., and where the points of origin are.

"We are monitoring this flow very carefully to understand the source," he said.

'Don't panic,' UN refugee agency representative to Canada says9:15