British Columbia

New U.S. immigration guidelines could increase risky asylum crossings, says legal expert

"I think there's good reason for people to be afraid in the United States. ... They don't know what's going to happen to them or their loved ones. Desperate people take desperate steps."

'Desperate people take desperate steps,' says immigration and refugee lawyer Doug Cannon

A family claiming to be from Turkey cross the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec Canada February 22, 2017. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

New guidelines for U.S. immigration authorities could increase the number of asylum seekers trying to cross into Canada from the southern border, according to one Vancouver immigration and refugee lawyer.

"I can imagine it will increase," said Doug Cannon, who has practised immigration and refugee law for over 20 years in Vancouver

"I think there's good reason for people to be afraid in the United States. ... They don't know what's going to happen to them or their loved ones. Desperate people take desperate steps," Cannon told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

The RCMP says Canada is already seeing an increasing number of asylum seekers crossing into this country from the U.S. In recent weeks dozens have crossed the border by foot, primarily in Manitoba, but also in Quebec and B.C.

The new U.S. guidelines, which still require congressional approval, broaden which immigrants would be subject to "expedited removal," But according to U.S. officials, the agency will prioritize those deemed as a threat.

Risks taken to avoid being sent to U.S.

Cannon says the rash of risky border crossings also raises new questions about Canada's Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.

That agreement, he says, stipulates that unless Canadian authorities can prove an asylum seeker crossed from the United States into Canada through a legitimate border crossing, they can make a refugee claim.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers conduct a targeted enforcement operation in Atlanta earlier in February. (Bryan Cox/ICE/Reuters)

"If you are found In Canada, or are inside Canada, and did not cross through a land border crossing, then they are simply going to allow you to enter the refugee claim process," he said.

But if they went across a defined crossing point, they would simply be turned back to the U.S., unable to make a refugee claim in Canada.

This is why so many asylum seekers are making risky crossings at unguarded points along the border, says Cannon.

"It's turned out to be something that, essentially, forces people to take desperate measures."

Cannon says regardless of whether asylum seekers enter Canada at a border crossing or at an unguarded point, they have still broken the law by entering Canada without permission.

However, if a refugee claim is successful, these charges are voided.

Close loophole with safe alternative

While some have called for the Safe Third Country Agreement to be suspended, Cannon argues the better solution is to have a "more organized measure" for people to access the Canadian refugee system to avoid physical harm.

"It wouldn't be that difficult to say, 'The land border is here. If you want to try and access our system … go to that building over there,'" he said. "It really would make no difference legally

"You would get the same removal order you would receive had you arrived at the land border crossing and were allowed to enter based on the exemptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement, say if you had a family member in Canada."

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

Emerson, Manitoba has seen dozens of asylum seekers walk through the community from the U.S. in recent weeks. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Lawyer fears new DHS guidelines could increase risky asylum crossings