Liberals mull Mexican visa lift as 3 Amigos summit confirmed for June

The federal Liberal cabinet is wrestling with how to lift visa requirements for Mexican visitors to Canada without having to spend millions of dollars handling what would likely be a spike in asylum claims as a result.

North American Leaders' Summit scheduled for June 29 in Ottawa

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has formally committed to removing visa requirements for Mexican citizens entering Canada, a policy imposed by the Conservative government in 2009 to stem the flow of Mexicans seeking asylum here. (Wally Santana/Reuters)

The federal Liberal cabinet is wrestling with how to lift visa requirements for Mexican visitors to Canada without having to spend millions of dollars handling what would likely be a spike in asylum claims as a result.

It's not only a matter of money: on certain indicators used to decide whether to remove visas, Mexico may not qualify, spurring internal debate about how to justify lifting the visa requirement without doing so for other countries.

But with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau having promised repeatedly to lift the requirement and the so-called "Three Amigos" summit scheduled to take place in Ottawa on June 29, the push is on to find a way.

Options on the table include waiting until more resources in place to better monitor travel, and threatening to reinstate the visa requirement if asylum claims from Mexico cross a certain threshold. 
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto during a bilateral meeting the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, on Sunday, November 15, 2015. (CBC)

Immigration Minister John McCallum said Thursday that the government is mindful of the risks.

"We are all working assiduously to deal with those problems and to mitigate them," he said.

The previous Conservative government imposed visa restrictions on Mexico in 2009, citing a need to curb asylum claims — in 2008, there were more than 9,000, making up nearly a quarter of all claims filed that year. The majority were rejected as unfounded.

After the visa was introduced, the number of claims fell to 1,199, the cost plunged from $304 million to $44 million; immigration violations dropped from 9,000 in 2006 to 3,500 in 2010, according to a 2012 evaluation of the program.

The number of violations is part of the criteria the Immigration Department uses when deciding whether or not to remove visa restrictions — they look at an average of how many visas are refused and how many people violated immigration rules over the last three years.

Mexico's rates aren't entirely where they should be, a senior immigration official told a House of Commons committee Thursday.

"Mexico's visa refusal rate is still somewhat above the rate of our objective criteria and the visa violation rate is also somewhat above the normal rate," David Manicom said.

"With regards to socioeconomic indicators, Mexico is meeting or close to meeting the indicators."

The Liberals promised during the election campaign to lift the visa, a commitment that Trudeau reiterated in his mandate letter to McCallum.

There are benefits to following through on the promise, the minister insisted.

"Canada attaches great importance to our friendship with our second North American partner, to the closer ties that will come from lifting the visa and to the economic benefits to many middle class Canadians who will benefit with jobs from the additional tourism."

Romanians, Bulgarian watching

A 2014 study by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada said $465 million was lost in spending from Mexican visitors because of the visa requirement. The impact on diplomatic relations has been an even bigger problem.

Mexico imposed a tit-for-tat visa requirement on Canadian diplomatic personnel; the festering dispute was also a factor in Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's decision last year to cancel a visit to Calgary.

Unless the visa issue is resolved, he won't show up in Ottawa next month either, diplomats say.

Romanians and Bulgarians are also paying attention.

They were told in 2014 that visas imposed on their citizens could not be lifted because the rate of immigration violations and visa refusals was beyond Canada's accepted thresholds. The average visa refusal rates for both countries hovered around 15 per cent, well above the four per cent threshold.

The Immigration Department could not immediately provide the refusal or violation rate for Mexico on Thursday.

But if Canada lifts visas for Mexico, it could escalate the ongoing diplomatic dispute over whether those two European countries will back the Canada-E.U. free trade deal.

In 2015, the Conservatives promised to lift restrictions on some travellers from Mexico, Romania and Bulgaria by way of a new electronic travel authorization system that would allow people with U.S. visas, or who had a Canadian visa in the past, to enter Canada without needing a new one.

That option remains on the table for all three countries as the Liberal government continues to roll out that system.