No plans to change refugee target in wake of U.S. travel ban: immigration minister

Canada will not hike its refugee intake target in the wake of a contentious immigration and travel crackdown in the U.S., says Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

NDP urges government to condemn Donald Trump's 'appalling, racist' policies during emergency debate

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says Canada will not change its refugee target in response to a crackdown in the U.S. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

As MPs debate U.S. President Donald Trump's travel ban in the House of Commons, Canada has already confirmed it will not hike its refugee intake target in the wake of a contentious immigration and travel crackdown in the U.S., says Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

Under pressure by the NDP, human rights groups and refugee lawyers to bring more asylum-seekers to Canada, the minister said Canada's plan will not change in response to an executive order by Trump that suspends the U.S. refugee program and bars entry to nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries.

"Our immigration levels plan has an allocation that is historically high for refugees," Hussen said. "We intend to maintain that plan."

Canada's 2017 immigration plan is set to accommodate 40,000 refugees.

Hussen also rejected calls to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, a pact which considers asylum-seekers safe in both Canada and the U.S.

"All the parameters of that agreement are in place and there is no change at this time," he said.

MPs held an emergency debate Tuesday evening, which concluded around midnight, on the U.S. immigration and travel directives,.

Noting that the U.S. has now agreed to allow in 872 refugees who were already screened and in transit, and were previously denied entry, Hussen said that's a sign the situation is evolving fast. He added that Canada will closely monitor developments.

"The responsible thing to do is to maintain contact, to continue to engage and make sure we monitor the situation closely to make sure we provide information to Canadians," he said.

People gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa Monday afternoon to protest an executive order signed by President Donald Trump banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. (CBC)

Call for 'special measures'

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan, who requested the emergency debate, held a news conference Tuesday morning urging the government to lift a cap on privately sponsored refugees and to fast-track refugee claims.

The B.C. MP laid out a number of proposed "special measures" ahead of the debate. 

"There is no question that this ban promotes hate and intolerance," she said. "This ban will have a disastrous effect for thousands of innocent travellers and refugees."

Calling it "absolutely shocking," Kwan said the Trump travel ban will have a huge negative impact on the economy, as well as cultural and academic development.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan is urging the government to take 'special measures' in response to a U.S. crackdown on immigration and travel. (CBC)

Tweet not enough

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a positive message with a weekend tweet underscoring Canada's commitment to welcoming refugees, Kwan said his words are not enough.

"A tweet is very good; it sends a clear message about where we should be. But following that we need concrete actions to go with it," she said.

Trudeau's tweet, which went viral, read, "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada."

Trump touched off global outrage and a wave of protests with an executive order to impose a temporary travel ban on refugees and nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries.

Canada has been given verbal assurance that permanent residents of Canada who are nationals of those countries will still be permitted entry to the U.S. They are required to present their permanent residence card in addition to their passport from their country of origin.

Any visa requirement that pre-existed the travel ban would still be required.

Debate in the House 

Interest in the emergency debate drew members of the public to Parliament, and MPs agreed to allow a queue of people waiting in the cold to sit in the Speaker's gallery as the public gallery was near capacity.

The debate kicked off with Kwan charging that the U.S. travel ban was a "racist policy."

"I, for one, can say this: In all of my life, I never thought that I would witness a ban based on race, religion and place of birth from any democratic country, much less from Canada's closest ally and neighbour," Kwan said. 

"Since the immigration and travel ban has been made public, I've received hundreds of emails and phone calls from constituents who absolutely reject these racist policies."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair also used the term "racist" to describe the ban, saying "Canadians are deeply concerned about President Trump's appalling, racist, immigration ban."

Liberal policy

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel used the debate to launch into an examination of whether Canada was effectively managing its own immigration file.

She questioned whether there was adequate funding to help refugees integrate into Canadian society, and whether it was wise to lift the visa restrictions on Mexicans coming to Canada.

"To respond to the immigration policies of other nations, we must first get our own house in order, and then through those actions, show the world what immigration policy best practice looks like," Rempel said.

The immigration minister drew on his personal experience as a Somali refugee in Canada to make the point that he understands how important Canada's commitment to refugees is, and why he was proud of the current Liberal policy. 

Hussen also said that he would use his power as a minister to afford temporary residency to anyone stranded in Canada as a result of the U.S. travel restrictions.