The Americans Have a Real Problem on Their Southern Border. So Could We.

Donald Trump’s efforts to constrain the flow of asylum seekers at America’s southern border are cruel, racist, and ineffective. The polarizing nature of his tactics obscures the reality of the underlying issue.

One of Trump’s leading pitches in the 2016 election campaign was that he would build a wall between the United States and Mexico and have the Mexicans pay for it. The underlying claim was that drugs and members of violent gangs were pouring across the border.

The solution was impractical, and never going to happen, but this was a successful political strategy. American policy for dealing with asylum seekers has been broken for years, and Congress has been unable to agree on a solution.

No wall has been built, nor will it be. The efforts to slow down asylum seekers have been spectacularly unsuccessful, the numbers growing to almost 100,000 in 2018, up 70% from 2017.

Most of them come as families, resulting at the border in a cruel separation of children from their parents. The children are kept in crowded detention facilities with poor nutrition and inadequate sanitation.

Chaotic record keeping makes it hard to reunite families after the adults have been processed. Backlogs in the judicial system mean that many claimants for refugee status have their hearings scheduled years into the future. Meanwhile, they live a precarious existence, sometimes helped by relatives or aid organizations.

The United States has historically been a magnet for immigrants who have contributed enormously to its success. A small proportion of these have been refugees who applied from outside the US and were accepted on humanitarian grounds.

Asylum seekers applying from within the country are sometimes accepted as refugees. Many are not but nevertheless manage to remain. The great majority do not have a criminal past but are nevertheless more likely to struggle economically and socially, especially if they do not have a support network.

If a substantial number become a burden to society, it breeds resentment in the rest of the population. It is that resentment, augmented by Trump’s many falsehoods (“They don’t pay taxes”, “Most of them are gang members”), that made this a winning issue for him in 2016.

The Democrats were incoherent on the topic, some not viewing it as a problem, and others acknowledging it without offering a solution. As the 2020 election approaches, they still are. They risk losing again on a topic where Trump’s performance has been miserable.

Canada’s only land border is with the United States. The two countries have a Safe Third Country Agreement which allows asylum seekers arriving at a border crossing to be sent back to make their claim.

Until recently, there were very few asylum claims by people coming from the US. That changed dramatically in 2017 with Trudeau’s ill-advised tweet: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”

Asylum seekers started arriving in large numbers at unofficial crossing points, most particularly Roxham Road in Quebec, hitting a peak of 5,500 in August, 2017. The numbers subsided somewhat but still amounted to more than 18,000 in 2018. The largest number was Nigerians, many of whom flew to the US with the express purpose of jumping Canada’s queue of refugee claimants.

Social services agencies in Ontario and Quebec were overwhelmed by the influx, and the intake of qualified refugees from war zones like Syria was reduced.

The Liberal budget bill in March had measures to stem the tide, including accelerated deportation of irregular border crossers who had applied for refugee status to another country such as the US.

The number of entries dropped temporarily but June’s number was 1,536, up 30% from 2018. That may be a statistical aberration, or a hint of a growing problem.

There are 60,000 Haitians, 86,000 Hondurans, and 260,000 El Salvadorans who were admitted to the US after earthquakes and other natural disasters. Their temporary permits have expired. Add to them hundreds of thousand others from Central America who have recently sought asylum after crossing the border since Trump was elected.

Trump would love to expel as many of them as possible, and the mere threat of doing so may cause a rush to Roxham Road and other irregular crossing points.

Some of those trying to help the asylum seekers at the US southern border argue that the US no longer qualifies as a Safe Country because of the poor treatment being provided by the US government, as well as abuses of judicial process. If that argument were to prevail in court, the rush to enter Canada could expand to all border crossings.

The Americans have a real challenge at their southern border. Trump’s heartless treatment of the arrivals has distracted attention from that reality. Canada is equally ill-equipped to deal with a comparable problem should it occur.

Canada is a world leader in accepting immigrants, including qualified refugees. It is a very important contribution to our success. For aging provinces like Nova Scotia, it is crucial to our long-term viability.

We risk losing public support for immigration if there is an uncontrolled flood of asylum seekers overwhelming social services and displacing war-zone refugees.

Clear-eyed plans to manage our southern border are crucial. The first step is to acknowledge that we could have a version of the Americans’ very real problem.


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