Biden and Trudeau tiptoe around immigration tensions on the northern border
By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
(CNN)President Joe Biden’s challenges along the southern border are spilling into his relationship with his northern partner ahead of his trip to Canada, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attempts to fend off his own critics concerned about a surge of migrants.
Pressure is mounting for Washington and Ottawa to finalize changes to a decades-old asylum agreement that would restrict certain migrants from seeking protections in Canada, sources told CNN.
While discussions have been ongoing for years, the sharp increase of people crossing into Canada from the US — some of whom are believed to have initially crossed the US southern border — has placed added urgency to talks.
The US and Canada have often worked together to manage migration in the Western Hemisphere. Over the years, the number of migrants crossing into Canada has fluctuated, previously hitting a high mark in 2017. But unprecedented movement around the globe in recent months has also reached the US-Canada border.
Biden and Trudeau have previously touted their relationship on a slew of issues, including in accepting refugees, and a Canadian official told CNN it’s unlikely the latest migration trend along the northern border will damage that bond. But both leaders have been forced to toughen up their stance on immigration due to an influx of migrants and political pressure.
Trudeau is facing blowback domestically over hundreds of migrants crossing Roxham Road, a remote street that connects Champlain, New York, with Hemmingford, Quebec.
“For Canada, this is quite a serious situation. This is a record number of arrivals from the US into Canada,” said Susan Fratzke, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute’s International Program.
“It’s also become a political priority for Canada perhaps in a way that it hasn’t before, and that’s partly because most of the effects of the situation have fallen on Quebec,” Fratzke said, noting that local officials in Quebec have said their system is strained.
Trudeau recognized the challenges at the Roxham Road crossing last month.
“The problem is we have 6,000 kilometers worth of undefended shared border with the United States,” Trudeau told reporters during a news conference last month, noting that people will choose to cross elsewhere even if the Roxham Road access point is closed.
“The only way to effectively shut down, not just Roxham Road but the entire border, to these irregular crossings is to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement,” he added.
The agreement, signed in 2002, applies to individuals who have transited through a country where they could’ve made an asylum claim because it’s deemed safe, as the name of the agreement implies. It’s in effect at ports of entry, and individuals entering at a land port of entry may be ineligible to make a claim and returned to the US.
But Roxham Road is not an official crossing, meaning that people who transit there could still seek protections in Canada even though they passed through the US. Crossings between ports of entry were not initially included in the agreement because of limitations to information sharing, according to Fratzke, but Canada is trying to close that loophole now that those limitations have been lessened.
The agreement has been among Canada’s priorities. This week, Sean Fraser, Canada’s immigration minister, discussed the agreement, among other issues, with Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, calling it a “productive meeting” in a tweet.
In a statement, a Homeland Security spokesperson confirmed that discussions are ongoing between Canada and the United States on the Safe Third Country Agreement and irregular migration more broadly.
“Both Canada and the United States are working hard on these discussions. DHS does not comment on ongoing bilateral discussions,” the spokesperson said.
Migrant crossings along the US-Canada border are still significantly lower than those along the US southern border. In January, for example, Canadian authorities intercepted nearly 5,000 asylum seekers crossing unlawfully, according to government data. US authorities can encounter up to 5,000 migrants a day along the US southern border.
“The issue here has always been that there’s much more of an incentive to move on this on the Canadian than the US side,” Fratzke said.
US Border Patrol, though, has also recently seen a historic high number of migrant crossings in the northern region.
“As we progress deeper into winter and continue to address the ongoing pace of illicit cross-border traffic, the level of concern for the lives and welfare of our Border Patrol Agents and those we are encountering — particularly vulnerable populations — continues to climb,” said Swanton Sector Chief Patrol Agent Robert N. Garcia in a February statement. Additional border authorities have been deployed to the region to assist.