U.S. says it's studying Canada's border pact proposal as Hussen downplays talk of negotiations

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it is reviewing a proposal to amend a border pact to manage asylum seekers, but Canada's immigration minister insists no formal talks are happening yet.

Liberal government insists no formal talks are underway to amend Safe Third Country Agreement

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen insists there are no formal negotiations underway to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement, but a U.S. Homeland Security spokesperson says Canada has presented a proposal that is now under review. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it is reviewing a proposal to amend a border pact to manage asylum seekers, but Canada's immigration minister insists no formal talks on the topic are happening right now.

"DHS is currently reviewing the proposal made by Canada to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement, but we have no decision to announce at this time," said a U.S. government spokesperson in an email.

The spokesperson said border patrol agencies on both sides of the border collaborate on security efforts and that elements of the U.S. government — including Department of Homeland Security and the State Department — are working closely with the government of Canada "to understand the evolving flow of northbound asylum seekers, including through joint CBP-CBSA analysis and collaboration by ICE and the State Department at U.S. embassies and consulates overseas."

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen insists there are no "formal negotiations" underway, but noted that the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) agreement was implemented in 2004 and could be due for an update.

"It's 14 years old now. As [with] any other agreement, there's always room for improvement, there's always room for growth," he told reporters after a cabinet meeting in Ottawa.

"Those discussions are ongoing. In terms of a formal negotiation process, that is simply not there."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale spoke to reporters after cabinet on Tuesday 0:54

Last year, Hussen rejected calls to suspend the agreement, saying there was no need to "tinker" with it. More than 200 academics wrote a letter calling on the government to suspend the STCA after U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration policies caused widespread uncertainty and drove many people without formal status in the U.S. to cross the border into Canada.

'Great tool'

Hussen called the bilateral pact to manage asylum seekers a "great tool."

"It's been an amazing experience for Canada and a good agreement for Canada and the United States on the joint management of asylum seekers," he said.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government is prepared to "have a conversation" about amending the agreement.

"This is very exploratory at the moment, scoping issues and potential solutions," he said. "It's very early days."

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety Mark Holland, Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Erin O’Toole and NDP Immigration critic Jenny Kwan discuss the talks underway between U.S. and Canada about the border pact. 9:55

But he also rejected the U.S. government's assertion that a proposal is on the table.

"No. There's no formal proposal at the moment. There is a conversation about how we make our border, both ways, strong, effective and secure from the perspective of both countries," he told reporters.

'Entirely impractical'

Asked about the Conservative pitch to have the STCA apply to the entire border, Goodale said that's "entirely impractical" because it would push people to more remote and dangerous crossing points, which would undermine border security.

"It's not a wise proposition," he said.

The STCA requires asylum seekers to make their claim in the first safe country they arrive in, unless they qualify for an exception spelled out in the agreement.

The agreement applies only to claimants trying to enter at official land border crossings, by train or at airports, which is why some are making the trek into Canada outside official crossing points.

PM protecting 'brand'

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel suggested that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is failing to manage the asylum situation in order to protect his political "brand" as a leader who welcomes refugees.

"This is about Canadian sovereignty. It's about the integrity of our immigration system, and it's about compassion," she said. "People should have a successful experience when they come to Canada, not have a direct line to a homeless shelter."

Asked about the government's plan in the House of Commons, Trudeau said managing the issue is essential for fairness and to ensure continued public support for immigration.

"We are going to remain compassionate while ensuring our laws are enforced," he said.

An RCMP officer stands guard at the border leading into Canada from the United States near Champlain, NY. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)