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Will US-Canada border deal mean riskier future for migrants?

Migrants wait to cross into Canada at Roxham Road, an unofficial crossing point from New York state to Quebec for asylum-seekers.

Migrants wait to cross into Canada at Roxham Road, an unofficial crossing point from New York state to Quebec for asylum-seekers.

REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

It had been nearly seven years since a US presidential visit to Canada when Joe Biden arrived in Ottawa last Thursday. President Donald Trump came by in 2018 for the G-7 summit, but it’s not the same as a dedicated stop.

As these things usually go, Biden’s visit was cast as part politics, part policy.

Would it help Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, lower in the polls than he’d prefer and surely thinking about an election that is due by Oct. 2025 but could arrive sooner? Would it help Biden, who comes from a country where presidential elections run 24/7/365? Would anything meaningful come from all the banners and speeches and flags and handshakes?

On the eve of Biden’s arrival, news started to leak about a border deal — an agreement that was announced on Friday. The amendment to the Safe Third Country Agreement will see Canada officially accept 15,000 asylum-seekers from the Western hemisphere under a new refugee program while gaining the right to send back migrants who attempt to enter the country through unofficial crossings within 14 days of intercepting them.

More details are to come, including who the 15,000 will be, where they will be drawn from and how they will enter Canada. There is also more to come on precisely how the 14-day interception period will work, although those who cross irregularly and are not apprehended within that window may apply for asylum and have their case heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

New deal, a long time coming, closes loophole

For years, the two sides have wrangled over irregular crossings, which were not covered in the STCA back in 2002-2004 for reasons that aren’t exactly clear. This “loophole” made asylum-seekers the responsibility of whichever country they crossed into through unofficial points of entry, a challenge that the U.S. didn’t mind shifting onto their northern neighbor as many claimants crossed into Canada across its border.

In 2022, Canada saw nearly 40,000 people arrive at these unofficial border spots, asylum-seekers who, had they crossed at official points of entry, would have been turned around and sent back to the United States under the terms of the agreement.

But as the issue became more of a problem for the United States – over 100,000 migrant encounters from Canada were reported by US Homeland Security officials last year – the Biden administration warmed up to the idea of amending the agreement.

Migrants now face even more risks

The new Trudeau-Biden agreement took effect immediately. No notice. No grace period. As Verity Stevenson reported for CBC, migrants were stunned and heartbroken.

Migration advocates and experts warn the amendment will drive asylum-seekers underground, which may lead to increased deaths. Moreover, it may not solve the crisis at the border, which is a significant but small part of a much deeper and growing catastrophe worldwide: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 117 million people will be displaced in 2023. What does that conclusion say about the deal?

Christina Clark-Kazak, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and migration expert, says the approach is unproven. Indeed, she says the deal is “part of a trend of rich countries ensuring that asylum-seekers never get to their borders, so they never have to deal with them.” Instead, governments prefer to pick and choose their claimants from a distance.

Whether the deal is good policy will be determined by outcomes, but the forecast is a bit grim: People are still going to come, and their journey will become riskier.

A mix of public policy and politics

The whole thing is political — and politics. The Roxham Road crossing between New York state and Quebec has seen the lion’s share of irregular crossings. Quebec Premier François Legault said he was “happy” with the deal and called it a “very good victory,” citing his province’s inability to process and settle claimants who entered at Roxham.

The STCA amendment is a political win for Trudeau, at least for now. It’s particularly important for what it may do for his party’s fortunes in Quebec, where the future of the Liberal government will be determined.

Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, says there’s a sound political logic to the deal. Canada will be alleviating some of the pressure on the U.S. border with its acceptance of 15,000 asylum-seekers while closing unofficial crossings, which may play well for the Liberals and the Democrats with their voters. As noted, there will also be fewer migrants coming into the United States through Canada after years of increased north-south crossings.

“We both get things that will help our current leaders with elections,” Sands says. This is a critical point to understand the machinations of the deal, which could serve as a model for the US-Mexico border, too — a much bigger challenge for Biden and U.S. policymakers. Given that, this deal could be “a reasonable plan that buys Biden time and takes the pressure off,” he adds.

Moreover, Biden may be thinking that Trudeau is his best bet for a workable deal, Sands notes, as there’s no guarantee the Liberal prime minister will still be the country’s head of government in a few years. For the Canadian side, Trudeau might be thinking the same thing, staring down a possible DeSantis or Trump redux administration.

Do as we say, not as we do?

Whatever the case, Clark-Kazak warns that the change to the STCA may further undermine Canadian, and by implication US, standing abroad. “We can’t go to a country like Pakistan and say, ‘You must continue to accept hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Afghans because you have a moral obligation to do so’ and in the meantime, we’re closing our borders,” she says.

The border deal is the marquee story of Biden’s visit to Canada. The STCA amendment may be good politics. But it may backfire. Whether it’s good policy will be determined in the months and years to come. And the devil will be in the details. In the meantime, there are plenty of reasons for concern despite two days of toasts and pats on the back.

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