Tories attack plan for temporary housing at Quebec border crossing

The federal government is planning to build temporary housing for up to 520 people at a Quebec border crossing that has seen an influx of asylum seekers.

Conservative immigration critic says federal government is setting up refugee camp at the border

A group of asylum seekers cross the Canadian border at Champlain, N.Y., Friday, August 4, 2017. Public Works and the Canada Border Services Agency say that housing units will be built in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec, where RCMP intercept most of the irregular migrants crossing into the province. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The federal government is planning to build temporary housing for up to 520 people at a Quebec border crossing that has seen an influx of asylum seekers.

The move comes just as tens of thousands of Hondurans have lost their temporary protected immigration status in the United States. There are concerns some of them they may look northward for refuge.

Public Works and the Canada Border Services Agency say in a notice that the housing units are for Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle — the municipality where most of RCMP interceptions of irregular migrants in Quebec take place.

The opposition Conservatives say the Liberal government is effectively setting up a refugee camp at the Canada-U.S. border.

"I'm not sure any Canadian would think that this is an acceptable response," Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said Friday.

Rempel said there is a frustrating lack of information from the government about the makeup and needs of asylum seekers.

"How can I say how much money they should be needing when we don't even know what their needs are? And that is the result of having no plan for immigration. It's bananas."

In a statement, Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale called Rempel's reference to a refugee camp "misleading," adding that "most irregular crossers do not spend long in custody before being released."

The housing notice currently calls for "heated, ventilated and illuminated canvas shelters" for three-season use that must include areas for sleeping, security, reception and warehousing. The government is also looking for other units to serve as quarantine space, toilets and showers, as well as systems for drinking water and drainage.

Goodale said that the short-term accommodations are meant to ease pressure on Quebec's resources while making sure Canada follows its international obligations. Most irregular crossings currently take place in that province.

"These tents are part of the government of Canada's contingency planning," Goodale said. "While they cannot predict what volumes will come next, we are prepared to manage an increase in asylum seekers in an orderly way."

Dozens of tents were set up at the Lacolle crossing in August of last year, many of which were dismantled when the pace of border crossings slowed. But Goodale said the structures that remain are not enough to meet the demand.

"There is currently limited bed capacity on-site, which is hard for children if they need to remain more than a day."

The minister also noted that while the crossing typically processes asylum claimants within a day, a large influx could spell longer processing times. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada equipped the official port of entry with a mobile processing unit last fall to help speed up intake.

About 2,500 asylum seekers crossed into Canada from the U.S. in April, Mike MacDonald, a senior Immigration Department official, told the House of Commons immigration committee on Thursday.

MacDonald said the figure was just an estimate and that the exact number for April would be known "in the fullness of time."

Rempel said the federal officials who came to testify should have offered an exact number.

"That's not fair," she said. "This is of immediate concern."

On Friday, the Trump administration ended a program granting temporary protected status for Hondurans in the U.S. A similar revocation of status for Haitians and El Salvadorans was blamed for triggering last year's influx of border crossers.

This latest decision gives more than 57,000 Hondurans with temporary protected status a year and a half to leave the U.S. or obtain legal residency in other ways.

Trump and his supporters have said the protections were never meant to be permanent.

However, many of the migrants have put down roots in the U.S. Some have given birth to children who have no knowledge of their parents' homeland.

"We work hard and do not have criminal records. I own a home and business with my family and every year I pay my taxes," Orlando Lopez, a Honduran living in Miami, said in a media statement.