Some believe U.S. no safe haven for asylum seekers, despite Canada's Third Country Agreement

Immigration experts are warning that the United States is no longer a safe destination for asylum seekers, and are urging Canada to provide that safety.

Changes made under the Trump administration call security of migrants into question

A family, claiming to be from Colombia, is arrested by RCMP officers as they cross the border into Canada from the United States as asylum seekers on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 near Champlain, NY. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Immigration experts are warning that the United States is no longer a safe destination for asylum seekers, and are urging Canada to provide that safety.

The governing Liberals have long claimed our neighbour to the south is a viable alternative to Canada for migrants, but shifts in policy by the administration of President Donald Trump have left some worrying that asylum seekers are now at risk in the U.S.

"There are serious problems with the asylum system in the United States right now," said Maureen Silcoff, an executive member of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

Asylum claims in Canada tripled from 2015 to 2017 — there were about 16,000 total claimants the year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected, compared to more than 50,000 claims two years later, according to Statistics Canada.

For most who crossed outside of a port of entry, their first glimpse of Canada was a dusty lane in southern Quebec: Roxham Road.

Olga, who left Burundi in 2015 fleeing political persecution, said she applied for asylum in the United States "where I was ... not because it was the safest, but it was safer, at least more than Burundi."

Fearing deportation because of delays in her immigration hearing, she made her way to Roxham Road in 2017.

There was a surge of thousands of migrants crossing the border that year. The rate has stabilized again, but asylum seekers are still a political flashpoint. And one deal in particular has sparked heated exchanges in the House of Commons.

New rules on the horizon

Canada has a pact with the U.S. called the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), which requires migrants to claim asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive. The idea is that if someone makes a claim in the U.S., they would not be allowed to make one in Canada.

However, there's an exception to the rules for those who cross outside an official port of entry.

Since April 2017, only 3,150 people who claimed asylum in Canada had applied previously in the U.S., according to statistics provided by the government. It's a gap the Liberals are trying to close with new measures.

Tucked into the back of the 2019 budget implementation bill was a proposed change to Canada's refugee laws that would expand the list of safe countries — the U.S. is the only officially 'safe' country Canada recognizes right now — to bar people from making asylum claims here if they'd already made claims in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand or the U.S.

The changes would mean more migrants coming here from the U.S. could be sent back there. 

Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen says the system in the U.S. is still safe for asylum seekers. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Also in the budget is $1 billion over five years to beef up border security and expedite asylum claims to mitigate the staffing issues caused by the influx.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said the changes are meant to prevent asylum shopping, which accounts for less than 10 per cent of cases.

"Whatever efficiencies we can get throughout the system, we'll take," he said.

But immigration and refugee experts worry Canada could be denying help to people who need it. 

"By refusing protection to those who travelled through the United States, Canada risks denying protection to people who your law and your Charter of Rights would otherwise protect," said Jacob Remes, a professor of Canada-U.S. history at New York University who specializes in immigration.

On Friday, Hussen announced that starting July 26, newcomers who are victims of domestic violence will be able to apply for free temporary resident permits that would grant them legal status in Canada, including access to health care and work permits. In more serious situations, the government will allow people to apply for permanent residency for humanitarian and compassionate reasons.

U.S. meets all standards for safety: government

The U.S. is legally a safe country, since it meets all of Canada's requirements for the designation.

It subscribes to international conventions on refugees and on torture, it has a healthy human rights record and it shares responsibility for migrants with Canada through the STCA, Ottawa says.

The government maintains it is constantly reviewing that distinction, and the ministers in charge of the file say the U.S. still checks all the boxes.

"The United States has a properly regulated, rules-based system of refugee determination," Border Security Minister Bill Blair said, adding that anyone who qualifies for Canada's protection will receive it.

Many asylum seekers say they don't feel secure in the U.S., but the Liberal government insists our neighbours to the south are following all the rules necessary to be designated a safe country. So, is Donald Trump's America safe? The House's Elise von Scheel went looking for answers.

"Our analysis indicates that the domestic asylum system in the United States provides due process," Hussen said.

Despite the government's assurances, Silcoff said it's time to re-evaluate the situation before promoting the U.S. as 'safe'.

"We know because of what's happened in the United States in the past few years that the system falls very short of those standards," she said.

"I think it's just a matter taking a hard look at not just the laws, but the practices and understandings, that people are at real risk of being sent back to their countries of origin and facing persecution."

Cages, domestic violence and blame

The U.S. has been criticized for its treatment of immigrants since Donald Trump won the 2016 election.

In the past year, children were detained in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border, former attorney general Jeff Sessions decreed domestic and gang violence weren't legitimate reasons for claiming asylum, and the president blamed immigration for all of America's problems.

It's the rhetoric that scared Olga.

"I never felt safe," she said. "You will hear comments about immigrants and you'll be like, 'I don't feel safe here.'"

She said she still doesn't know what her fate in Canada will be as she awaits a final decision on her claim, two years after crossing into Quebec — but it's still better than living on the other side of the border.

Her concerns echo those of other migrants, and Remes said it's time the Canadian government acknowledges there's an issue.

"Are border crossers a problem to be solved by excluding them, or are they people who have really dangerous and pressing problems whom Canadians wish to help?" Remes said.

If Canadians feel those migrants aren't safe, he said, there's only one question left to ask.

"What are the resources that the Canadian government is willing to spend in order to provide those people the protections that the government has promised to provide them in international legal contexts?"


Elise von Scheel is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Calgary and the producer of the West of Centre podcast. You can get in touch with her at elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.