Let's stop the rhetoric on illegal immigration and fix the broken system

Canada’s immigration enforcement and border security shortcomings are the result of longstanding administrative and management neglect.

Canada’s approach to immigration enforcement and border security hasn't changed much in more than a century

The Canada Border Services Agency needs to be "funded, staffed and supported at a level that ensures credibility and confidence in Canada's refugee and immigration program," Kelly W. Sundberg argues. (Canada Border Services Agency)

Public debate, concern and fear surrounding immigration and refugee issues is nothing new.

Since the time of the Industrial Revolution, colonial expansion and the birth of globalization, immigrants and refugees have often been viewed as economic and social threats to established communities — erroneously blamed for taking jobs away from local workers, disrupting cultural and religious norms, and causing a rise in crime and social disorder.

While fears and concerns about immigrants and refugees tend to be muted during periods of economic prosperity, in times of economic and social decline, they are nearly always the first to be blamed for national woes.

Simply put, it is war, terrorism, corruption and organized crime that results in a refugee crisis emerging. Today's refugee crisis is no exception. On a similar point, it is economic growth, combined with a lack of locally available skilled workers and general labourers, that results in rising numbers of immigrants.

Building on the significant impact commercial air-travel has had on global migration numbers since the 1970s, widespread and near-free internet access (specifically social media) throughout the developing world arguably stands as one of the most significant forces in contemporary immigration and refugee movement.

Equally within the developed world, the internet (and again social media) has provided xenophobic and right-wing fringe groups a highly effective means to rapidly disseminate their contempt for immigrants and refugees among otherwise content members of the general public — a key reason for the rise in hate crimes here in Canada, the United States, and across Europe.

Despite the fact that immigration stands as the main contributing factor for economic prosperity, social and scientific advancement, not to mention a greatly improved quality of life for all throughout the developed world, immigration has yet again become a hot-button topic for politicians, irrespective of their political stripe.

Issues concerning foreign workers, students, and visitors, along with skilled and family class immigration, get inaccurately combined with issues concerning refugees and "illegal" migration.

Around the world — in particular the United States, Europe, and to a lesser degree Asia and Oceania — governments have ramped up immigration screening, selection and enforcement as a means to quell political panic and public concerns about border security.

News coverage fuels concerns

Here in Canada, the Liberal government appointed former Toronto police chief Bill Blair as Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction — a move clearly aimed at addressing the public's mounting concerns.

It has become commonplace to see news stories about a seemingly never-ending flow of undocumented migrants along our border, failed refugees being arrested for violent crimes, and smuggled guns and drugs taking the lives of innocent Canadians.

Global leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump refer to refugees as an invading caravan of criminals and terrorists. False and misleading alt-right media reports suggest a dramatic rise in terrorism and crime in Europe as a result of Middle Eastern refugees.

Combined with accurate reports of backlogs in the removal of failed refugee claimants here in Canada, there is no wonder many in Canada are concerned — some even scared.

Don't worry, don't be fearful

To all those Canadians who find themselves becoming worried or fearful that our nation's border security is failing, I say this… Don't worry, don't be fearful, but do hold your member of Parliament to account.

For over 15 years, I helped guard our borders, identified, arrested, detained, and removed foreign nationals who ran afoul of our immigration law. I helped write the initial post-9/11 policy and law meant to safeguard our sovereignty, economy, and communities.

After leaving what is today the Canada Border Services Agency, I've dedicated much of my time as an academic exploring immigration enforcement and border security around the world.

What I can say with great confidence and certainty is that Canada is not under siege, immigrants are a central benefit to our nation, and that Canada's immigration enforcement and border security shortcomings are the result of longstanding administrative and management neglect.

Aside from the relatively rapid creation of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) in 2003 — a move deemed necessary to appease ill-informed concerns of the United States that Canada was a refuge for dangerous foreigners — Canada's approach to immigration enforcement and border security has remained relatively the same for over a century.

What I can say with great confidence and certainty is that Canada is not under siege.- Kelly W. Sundberg

The vast majority of our resources are concentrated at designated ports of entry along the border or at airports. Only a handful of specialized officers are posted within our cities. Even fewer numbers are posted abroad to do proactive intelligence and screening.

The RCMP continues to have primary responsibility for "border patrol" (a function near impossible for our federal police service to effectively achieve considering its lacking resources), and municipal police services have been left addressing threats such as foreign fugitives, firearms, and drugs that easily permeate our border.

To this end, no independent oversight body is tasked with ensuring our nation's borders are effectively, efficiently, and economically safeguarded. In all regards, we are protecting our borders using an early 1900s model rather than truly approaching border security from a 21st-century perspective.

CBSA must be reformed

Clearly, there is great need for the CBSA to undergo organizational review and reform.

What's more, the CBSA needs to adjust its focus away from the traditional port-of-entry protection model to intelligence led screening and interdiction efforts both domestically and abroad — significantly bolstering the number of officers tasked with both immigration and customs intelligence, compliance, and enforcement within Canadian communities and at Canadian high commissions, consulates, and embassies.

For example, Canada currently relies on airline staff to ensure those boarding flights to Canada have valid identity documents. Moreover, there are not nearly enough CBSA officers to do spot-checks of failed refugees released from detention awaiting removal from Canada. The agency rarely integrates with provincial or municipal police services to bolster efforts to curb firearm and drug smuggling.

Reforming Canada's immigration enforcement and border security program is not contrary to liberal values and ideals.

In fact, such efforts would undoubtedly go far in supporting Canada's commitment to supporting refugees, upholding our commitment to family unification, and ultimately benefit economic and community development focused immigration.

We don't need new laws. Rather, we need the CBSA to be funded, staffed and supported at a level that ensures credibility and confidence in our nation's refugee and immigration program.


Kelly W. Sundberg is an associate professor in the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He is a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. On Twitter: @Prof_Sundberg


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