Thank you, Chair, for inviting me here today.
Let me begin by saying how delighted I am that the government has begun to take seriously the problem of the integrity of the border, particularly with respect to illegal or, if you prefer, irregular border crossers. Unfortunately, while the government is making noises that it wants to repair the damage at the border, there is little evidence that the measures that have been proposed will be effective, and the government has not yet committed itself to changes that would make a real difference. Basically, I think the principle that should guide us here is that the rule should not reward people trying to game the system at the expense of those who are law-abiding.
Let's begin with why it is correct to say that there is a problem at the border. Canada's highly successful post-war immigration policy, supported by an all-party consensus and public opinion, has never been laissez-faire about who gets into Canada. On the contrary, that admirable policy has always been premised on the idea that Canada decides who gets into the country and that the selection process will be carried out in a disciplined and orderly way, in a very Canadian way, I might say.
In the last several years, however, that supportive public consensus has been severely undermined. First was the discovery that would-be immigrants could exploit a flaw in the law regarding people wishing to claim refugee status in Canada. The law is premised on the sensible notion that refugees should make their claim for status in the first safe country they arrive in. Canada, like the rest of the civilized world, sees the priority with refugees as their safety, or to use the official word, their protection, not their ability to shop around for the country they would most like to live in.
Since the bulk of refugee claimants arriving in Canada did so via the United States, we negotiated a safe third country agreement, a STCA, with Washington, which assured that refugee claimants attempting to enter Canada from the U.S. would be turned back on the grounds that the U.S., a country with a sound process for assessing refugee claims, is where their claims should be made and adjudicated.
Some clever person worked out that, since this rule could be avoided simply by crossing the border illegally between official crossings, there exists no mechanisms under the STCA for returning refugee claimants who enter elsewhere than official border crossings. Once this unintended loophole became public, the predictable result was that tens of thousands of people crossed the border illegally and presented themselves as refugees when, in fact, a great many of them were simply queue-jumping economic migrants.
Indeed, fewer than half of the refugee claims that have been made have been accepted. The government's first response to criticism questioning the wisdom and propriety of this policy was to accuse its critics of racism and wanting Canada to abandon its commitment to the fair treatment of refugees. This position is untenable on several counts.
First, many of the critics of what was emerging as the situation I've just described were themselves new Canadians understandably upset at the weakening of the integrity of an immigration system that many of them patiently navigated in order to come to Canada. They waited their turn. They felt law-abiding people were being penalized and that queue-jumpers were given an unfair advantage.
Second, the criticism logically implied that the current government policy of turning refugee claimants back at official border crossings was also racist; it is a necessary conclusion, if you think this through. The current border-crossing policy at official border crossing is racist, if you accept the premise I've just outlined, and the official policy at border crossings failed to uphold Canada's refugee commitments. This is clearly nonsense.
Alarmed at the erosion in public confidence in the immigration system, the government is now trying to project an image of stern defender of the border, but so far, I think this is largely image over substance. Look for example at clause 306 of Bill C-97, which makes ineligible for refugee status claimants who have previously made a claim for refugee protection in a third country such as the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Clause 306 is intended to stop what Minister Blair has called asylum shopping. Such behaviour can cause stress on our overloaded asylum system, which we should recall has a backlog of tens of thousands of people, as documented by the Auditor General, who says we are not equipped to deal with such surges of claimants.
Minister Blair, however, has just in the last couple of days confirmed that these changes simply move these claimants into a different bureaucratic process but with the same rights of in-person presentation, right to counsel, judicial appeal and granting a protected person status instead of refugee status, which means no removal.
This measure seems to me to be largely window-dressing, not least because I've been informed that the minister himself has indicated that the changes will perhaps affect at most about 10% of irregular migrants. Indeed since the typical illegal border crosser at, say, Roxham Road in Quebec is a Nigerian who has made no claim elsewhere, this measure is largely irrelevant to the problem at hand.
By contrast, a very positive step is clause 304 of Bill, C-97, which provides real consequences for countries that obstruct our efforts to return their citizens whom we are attempting to deport. Specifically, we may deny or suspend applications for temporary resident visas, work permits or study permits from people from the country in question. That is a reasonable and pragmatic action to enforce reciprocity with otherwise unco-operative countries and ultimately to expedite the removal of deportees.
Notably, it is a measure that has been recommended by my institute in previous publications, and while it hasn't received much attention, it is a change that would have significant impact and lead to increased immigration enforcement results.
Leading an international effort by like-minded countries to generalize this approach would allow Canada to exercise genuine international leadership in the field, which is something I think all of us would like to see.
I would strongly recommend, however, that we take this further and enlarge the scope of sanctions that we can employ against non-co-operating countries including all visas, development aid, the operation of any trade agreement and any other means of bringing pressure to bear.
We are spending ever more resources on deporting ever fewer people, because other countries don't want these people back. We cannot allow these countries to exploit our generosity, which will only lessen the welcome we can extend to genuine refugees.
The heated objections from the refugee industry and the immigration lawyers club to these useful and sometimes less useful changes are hugely overdone, although they certainly deserve full scrutiny—