Minister, union head disagree on how to deal with migrant influx

The minister of immigration and the head of Canada's Customs and Immigration Union are at odds when it comes to what they consider the appropriate approach to handling an increase of irregular border crossings from the U.S.

About 600 migrants crossed the border in Lacolle, Que. over the weekend

An RCMP officer speaks to an asylum seeker who crossed the border at Roxham Road in the summer of 2017. (CBC)

The minister of immigration and the head of Canada's Customs and Immigration Union are at odds over what they see as the right approach to handling a spike in irregular border crossings from the U.S.

It's a question that has — so far — defied solutions. How can the government best respond to increased numbers of illegal migrants walking into Canada?

While Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen is emphasizing education and outreach, union head Jean-Pierre Fortin is pleading for more resources at the border.

Over the Easter long weekend, approximately 600 people crossed into Quebec along the now-infamous Roxham Road.

There's no official port of entry along the road, but 190 people crossed illegally on April 5 alone.

Given that the crossing has seen an average of about 60 migrants passing through over the last few months, the sudden threefold increase could offer a hint of what Quebec can expect in the summer months.

"It is a clear indication right now ... that there will be a major influx over the coming weeks," Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, told CBC Radio's The House.

RCMP arrest men on Roxham Road

6 years ago
Duration 2:13
Mounties warn, then arrest three men illegally trying to enter Canada via Roxham Road.

If the summer sees another mass movement of illegal migrants into Canada, Fortin said he fears border officers will be left understaffed and under-resourced.

Hussen, however, said activity at the border has been relatively steady, and there may not be cause to expect the kind of border rush we saw last year.

Same message, different audience

Since the summer, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has been arranging trips to the U.S. for the minister and other officials to try to deter people from attempting to cross into Canada outside of channels.

"How you get ahead of it is you're always vigilant, you track the numbers, you also track the different nationalities that are coming in and you tailor your messaging to those people," Hussen said.

But the people they targeted with their messaging last year — mainly Haitian nationals — are not the ones making up the majority of migrants this year.

Between 60 to 70 per cent of this week's arrivals are Nigerian nationals, mostly without permanent status in the U.S., Fortin said.

Last year, the RCMP stopped over 20,000 people attempting to cross into Canada. Of those, 90 per cent were halted along the Quebec border with the U.S.

Signs in English and French state that people will be arrested if they cross the border into Canada at Roxham Road in Lacolle, Que. (Aaron Lakoff/David Zinman)

Taking in thousands of migrants over the last year has taken a toll on the border officers, Fortin said.

The RCMP built a trailer along Roxham Road to establish a more permanent presence there, but Fortin said the current level of staffing for border services is at an all-time low and he's "begging" the minister for more resources.

"It looks like the government doesn't take this seriously," he said.

"It seems for them that it's going to disappear in six months to a year, and we don't see that. We don't see that at all."

Fortin said he worries security could be compromised and border wait times could increase if the issues persist.

Mixed messages and lessons learned

The border agencies responded very well last year, but they also learned "what to do better next time," said Hussen,

There's currently a national strategy in place, with specific directives for each region, and officers are engaging in training exercises, he added.

However, he did not say whether there are plans to change the directives or training in the event that more people start flowing over the border again.

The government's budget for 2018 included more than $170 million over two years to support the intake of asylum claimants and to help process claims, detentions and removals.

Given the picture on the ground, Fortin said the government is still sending a mixed message to people looking to enter Canada.

That RCMP trailer that now sits in Lacolle, Que. is a symbol of that mixed message, he added.

"I think that the message doesn't get through, because in one way we're saying, 'Don't come to Canada' ... but then we are building almost a brand new facility on Roxham Road."