Mexican refugee claims jump after visa requirement dropped

At least 70 Mexicans claimed refugee status in Canada in the first month after the federal government lifted a visa requirement for travellers from Mexico, according to figures provided by the Canada Border Services Agency.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's promise to deport illegal residents could drive more Mexicans north

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto clasp hands at a joint news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. Canada recently dropped a visa requirement for travellers from Mexico. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

At least 70 Mexicans claimed refugee status in Canada the first month after the federal government lifted a visa requirement for travellers from Mexico.

The one-month figure brings the total number of Mexican refugee claims for 2016 to 248, compared to 111 in 2015, according to figures provided by the Canada Border Services Agency.

The policy change took effect on Dec. 1, 2016.

"We anticipated there would be if not an immediate spike, a surge, and it seems that is what's happening," Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Peter Kent told CBC News.

The Conservatives imposed a visa requirement in 2009 after a rise in refugee claims from Mexico that were ultimately rejected as invalid.

The number of Mexican claims referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board peaked at 9,511 in 2009. After the visa requirement was imposed, the number of claims dropped to 1,349 for 2010, then continued to shrink over the years.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the plan to lift the visa requirement during a visit by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to Ottawa on June 28, 2016. During that meeting, Mexico announced it would fully reopen its market to Canadian beef.

Kent said the shift was a flawed policy decision, based on politics rather than evidence.

'Unwise' campaign promise

"This is yet another unwise campaign promise that the government seems determined to fulfil despite the lack of any data that would support the removal of the visa requirement," Kent said.

But Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, sees the increase in refugee claims as a positive development.

"It means that people whose lives may be at risk are able to find protection in Canada," she said. "We look at it in terms of the number of lives saved; people who are able to escape possible torture or serious harm."

Along with the visa requirement lift, Dench said the election of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump could also drive up the number of asylum-seekers in the coming months. Trump campaigned on promises to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to swiftly deport undocumented workers and illegal residents.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has promised to move quickly to remove undocumented workers and illegal residents in the U.S. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Dench said those promises have put a "fear into the hearts" of some Mexicans, who could seek refuge north of the border.

"That's something that might affect the overall numbers of Mexicans in the coming months if the incoming president does go ahead with some of his threats in terms of harsh measures against people living without status in the U.S.," she said.

$262M price tag

An internal government regulatory cost analysis released in November 2016 found that lifting the visa requirement for Mexican travellers is expected to cost about $262 million over the next decade, in part to deal with a potential surge in asylum seekers. The report says the overall cost of the policy shift will be $433.5 million over 10 years.

According to the analysis, those costs would be offset in part by an estimated $171.6 million linked to a boost in tourism from Mexico and an increase in investment and trade opportunities.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum has said he will monitor the number of refugee claims and could reinstate the visa if it climbs too high.