Lifting Mexican visa rules runs counter to official advice

The Canadian government is proceeding with a campaign promise to lift the visa requirement for Mexican travellers on Dec. 1, even though public servants are warning the move comes with significant risks.

Mexico lobbying for end of restrictions ahead of next week's Three Amigos summit

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, will host Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Ottawa next week for the Three Amigos summit of North American leaders. A deal to lift Mexican visa requirements would remove a longstanding irritant between the two countries and keep a Liberal election promise. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Canadian government is proceeding with a campaign promise to lift the visa requirement for Mexican travellers on Dec. 1, even though public servants are warning the move comes with significant risks.

Information obtained by CBC News shows government officials have cautioned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government about proceeding ahead of a thorough review.

The information includes a number of conditions Mexico should be required to meet in advance of the visa lift, including unfettered access by officers of the Canadian Border Services Agency at Mexican airports and a new information-sharing agreement between the CBSA and relevant Mexican authorities.

Even so, officials identified a series of risks if the visas are lifted as expected during the visit to Canada by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Risks identified by government officials include:

  • Travellers involved in organized crime, illegal drugs or human trafficking could enter Canada more easily.
  • Weak passport controls in Mexico could be exploited by citizens of other countries to gain entry into Canada. Since 2014, Canada has intercepted more than 100 fraudulently obtained Mexican passports.
  • A significant risk that the United States would see Canada as a weak security partner, leading the Americans to thicken the border with Canada, imposing more regulations and inspection that could slow down the cross-border trade.
  • A significant increase in bogus asylum claims, concerns that led the former Conservative government to impose the visa requirement in 2009.

Asylum claims from Mexico almost tripled from 2005 to 2008, when Mexicans accounted for more than 25 per cent of all refugee claims filed in Canada.

New asylum claims jumped to 9,511 in 2009, its highest peak under Stephen Harper's government, according to figures obtained by CBC from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

After the visa restrictions were put in place by the Conservatives, the number of claims dropped drastically, to 1,349 in 2010. 

The vast majority of asylum claims from Mexico were rejected.

There have been 29 new asylum claims from Mexico during the first three months of 2016, from January to March. Ten claims were accepted.

Peña Nieto will be in Canada starting on Sunday for a state visit. The Mexican president arrives in Ottawa late Monday night and will meet with Trudeau ahead of the Three Amigos North American leaders summit on June 29.

The visa issue has been a longstanding irritant in Canada's bilateral relationship with Mexico, with Peña Nieto's government pushing hard for a resolution.

Campaign commitment

Trudeau formally committed to lifting the visa requirement during a face-to-face meeting with Peña Nieto on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey in November.

The Liberals' platform in last October's federal election promised to "renew and repair" Canada's relationship with its North American partners. 

"As a first step, [a Liberal government] will immediately lift the Mexican visa requirement that unfairly restricts travel to Canada," it read.

But keeping this commitment has consequences.

Mexico's passports meet international standards for security features, but officials have warned they can be easily obtained using false identity documents.

Difficult economic circumstances in Mexico may prompt irregular migration to Canada, something that's difficult to manage and restrict without a visa requirement.

Bureaucrats also warn lifting the visa requirement could create new bilateral irritants with other countries — Ukraine, Costa Rica, Romania and Bulgaria — that all want Canada's visa restrictions against their countries removed too.

For example, the Romanian prime minister was in Ottawa last week to meet Trudeau and lobby vigorously for his cause. The Romanian and Bulgarian visa rules have been an irritant in Canada's efforts to get its trade deal with the European Union ratified. 

Conditions likely

If the announcement proceeds next week, Canada would lift its restrictions if Mexico meets specific requirements as of Dec. 1.

Canada would only take in 3,500 asylum seekers. Information obtained by CBC News suggests that if the number goes over 3,500, Canada could re-implement visa requirements for some travellers.  

Canada is looking for more co-operation from Mexican authorities to implement the change, including improved information sharing. 

Mexico could also be asked to establish a public awareness campaign aimed at Mexican nationals travelling to Canada.

The estimated cost of lifting the requirement is $228 million over the first five years, with an ongoing annual price tag of $50 million. But that cost figure does not include the expected increase in asylum seekers.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel repeated her party's call for a formal review of the visa issue and accused the Trudeau government of ignoring the facts for the sake of political expediency.

"Conservatives call on the Liberal government to make its visa decisions based on evidence and follow the formal process," Rempel said in a written statement issued Thursday.

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With files from CBC's Chris Hall, Evan Dyer and Susana Mas