Canada tracking Trump's border crackdown to see if U.S. remains safe for asylum seekers

Canada is monitoring the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" migrant policy - which has led to the forcible detention of thousands of children - to determine if the U.S. remains a safe country for asylum seekers.

Critics call for immediate shredding of bilateral immigration pact in wake of U.S. detention of 2,000 minors

Californian protesters demand an end to the U.S. government's policy of taking children away from their parents after they cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. In Canada, critics say the crackdown warrants the suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada is monitoring the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" migrant policy — which has led to the forcible detention of thousands of children — to determine if the U.S. remains a safe country for asylum seekers.

Global outrage is growing over Trump's hardline approach to people crossing illegally into the U.S. from Mexico — a policy that puts adults through the criminal justice system while sending their children to detention camps. The Trump administration also has eliminated the option of citing a risk of domestic or gang violence as grounds to seek protection.

Critics are calling on Canada to urgently respond by suspending the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the United States, but Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said the government will analyze the situation to determine the impact of the Trump administration's policy on due process, appeals rights and migrants' ability to make asylum claims.

"We have to see the impact of these changes on the domestic asylum system in the U.S. to see whether the U.S. continues to meet its obligations, not just to the international community, but also to the Safe Third Country Agreement," he said.

Hussen said that ongoing analysis is being carried out by both countries, as well as the UN's refugee agency. He said he could not provide any time frame for the review.

In past, the minister has said the 14-year-old agreement — which requires that migrants crossing the Canada/U.S. border make their refugee claims in the first "safe" country they come to, whether it's Canada or the U.S. — is working in Canada's interests but should be modernized.

According to data provided to CBC News by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 1,949 asylum seekers were turned back at official border points in 2017 — refused entry to Canada under the STCA.

That's up dramatically from previous years. In 2016, 731 were refused; in 2015, 418 were turned away and in 2014 just 456 were denied entry.

Fearful fleeing Trump

"The jump in numbers means that individuals are genuinely, legitimately and justifiably afraid about how they will be treated and about whether they will be given due process under the Trump administration's regime," said Aris Daghighian, a refugee lawyer and executive member of the Canadian Refugee Lawyers Association.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirmed on the weekend that nearly 2,000 migrant children were separated from their families between April 19 and May 31, when the Trump administration was cracking down on illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The UN has said separating families amounts to an "arbitrary and unlawful" interference in family life and calls it a "serious violation" of the rights of children.

Despite international outrage and condemnation, Trump defended the practice today.

'The United States will not be a migrant camp,' says U.S. president 1:27

"The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee-holding facility," he said.

Daghighian said it's clear the U.S. is not meeting its international obligations on refugees, human rights and rights of the child, and that Canada should not be its immigration partner under the STCA.

"The problem here now is that both the conditions of detention — subjecting individuals to cruel and unusual separation from their children — but also the grounds for which the U.S. is willing to offer protection are being severely limited," he said. "So in that way, Canada can't be confident that the U.S. will abide by its international obligations that it will provide protection to these individuals under a fair process."

Failing to denounce the U.S. and shred the agreement would amount to a departure from Canada's record of leading on humanitarian issues and would send the wrong message to the world, Daghighian said.

Moral, legal obligations

"It would say that, for political reasons, or for reasons to do with the current trade negotiations, we're willing to give up some of our most fundamental values, our moral obligations and our legal obligations."

While Canada deals in much smaller numbers, this country does hold children in immigration detention centres. Statistics from the Canada Border Services Agency show that 150 minors (aged under 18) were detained with a parent or guardian over a nine-month period that ended Dec. 31, 2017, and another five were held unaccompanied. 

In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, there were 151 minors detained with a parent or guardian, and another 11 unaccompanied.

In November 2017, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale issued a directive on the treatment of minors in Canada's immigration detention system. It said that, "as much as humanly possible," children must be kept out of detention and with their families.

MPs debate the Trump administration's immigration policy and how it impacts the Safe Third Country Agreement. 5:35

Citing the best interests of the child as its primary consideration, the directive said alternatives to detention must be considered, such as cash or performance bonds and community supervision.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the developments south of the border underscore the fact that the U.S. is no longer a 'safe third country'.

She called it "astounding" that the Liberal government would consider keeping Canada in an agreement with a country that is flagrantly flouting international law on the rights of refugees and children.

'That is an enforcement choice they have made,' says Theresa Cardinal Brown, former Director of Canadian Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security on Power & Politics. 7:28

"If we continue on with the status quo in the face of this inhumane development, then Canada is complicit to the situation," she said.

Asked today if Canada can still consider the U.S. a safe country in light of the crackdown, Transport Minister Marc Garneau, chair of the cabinet committee on U.S. relations,  said: "Of course we can."

Will the U.S. policy force Canada's hand on the Safe Third Country Agreement? The Power Panel debates. 8:41

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