Immigration

The Real Reason Refugees Are Crossing, Legally and Illegally, into Canada

An RCMP officer meets a family claiming to be from Turkey as they cross the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Quebec, February 22, 2017. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
It’s not Trump they’re fleeing, it’s the rule of law. Canada doesn’t enforce its own immigration laws.

As noted Canadian Jordan B. Peterson is fond of reminding us, the oldest theme of storytelling is a conflict between something cruel and masculine, and something kind and feminine. In the literature of North American political journalism, this has certainly been the long-favored prism for portraying Canadian–American relations, particularly these days, when the leaders of both countries seem such on-the-nose stereotypes.

In the age of Trump vs. Trudeau, a plot point that journalists of both nations have gripped especially tight is the supposed stampede of Third World refugees from the United States into Canada. Reuters was but the latest to produce a feature story on the phenomenon, reporting on Monday that “more than 20,000 people, including thousands of Haitians and Nigerians and hundreds of Turks, Syrians and Eritreans, have crossed the border into Canada illegally over the past year in search of asylum, many fleeing in fear that Trump would deport them to their home countries.”

No matter how abundant they are in color and anecdote, these stories rarely divert from a few predetermined conclusions: that Trump is a frightening racist, that American-based refugees are right to flee, and that if Canada is guilty of anything, it’s caring too much.

If one exerts minimal effort to get off this tendentious narrative track, however, the tale becomes far less morally tidy.

To begin, the fact that some people illegally cross the border from the United States into Canada does not suggest that the continent is descending into a Handmaid’s Tale–esque dystopia. Illegal crossings are a persistent logistical problem that has dogged the two countries for decades. Every year, somewhere between hundreds and thousands of American-based persons sneak across the Canadian border, and certain persistent trends, such as Somalis crossing the Minnesota-Manitoba line, experience peaks and valleys that do not tend to correlate with developments. During the 2015–16 election cycle, for instance, 294 Somalis crossed the border before Donald Trump even won the Republican nomination.

Attempts to chronicle larger trends are hampered by unclear data (as is often the case with Canadian statistics). The “more than 20,000” figure cited by Reuters is based on Royal Canadian Mounted Police “apprehensions” of border-crossers in 2017, for which no previous data exist, but other, vaguer data do support the thesis that there’s been a significant “Trump Bump” of American-originated refugees applying for amnesty at Canadian immigration offices at both “land” (i.e., border) and “inland” (inside the country) locations. Under the terms of a 2004 treaty, American-based persons are not supposed to apply for refugee status in Canada at all, though the agreement has exemptions and can be dodged altogether by entering Canada illegally. The combined land and inland total was 5,005 in 2015, followed by 8,990 in 2016 and 18,190 in 2017, though that 2015 figure shows that Canada would still be struggling with a substantial inflow of American asylum seekers even with a Democrat in the White House.

For many American-based refugees, Canada has always been the ultimate destination, with the United States understood as a temporary stop along the way. Now we have the so-called New Underground Railroad, in which migrants from Asia, Africa, or the Middle East enter this hemisphere through Latin America and then make an arduous trek upward until they arrive in the Great White North.

Canada is an attractive endpoint for refugees for a number of reasons. The main one can sound insensitive when stated bluntly, because it inevitably involves passing moral judgement on such frequently desperate people: Basically, Canada is just fundamentally more lawless than the United States when it comes to immigration.

One should therefore be wary of the narrative, popular in some circles on both right and left, that Prime Minister Trudeau has exacerbated the refugee situation by posturing disingenuously, on social media and elsewhere, about Canadian generosity, when, supposedly, Canadian refugee law is actually quite tough — little different from America’s.

In reality, whatever Canadian law says on paper, terrible follow-through ensures that Canada is, in fact, a very logical place for any refugee, including those of dubious claim or character, seeking comparatively easy treatment. Global News has been reporting this week on just how spectacularly incompetent Canada’s immigration bureaucracy is at deporting even the most brazenly unacceptable aliens, including a Sudanese man with 37 criminal convictions and a Palestinian terrorist deemed a “danger to the security of Canada” — both of whom remain in the country more than a decade after ordered out.

Illegal border-crossers aside, Canada welcomes thousands of ordinary refugee applicants to the country every year, yet the Canadian refugee-verification system has proven unable to process this steady intake, CBC News has reported. By Ottawa’s own estimate, it may soon take eleven years for a refugee applicant to even get an initial hearing, and obviously longer should he choose to appeal an unfavorable ruling.

In a cynical concession to this fact, multiple levels of government have made staying in unprocessed refugee limbo a kind of de facto long-term visa of its own, with members of the class eligible to obtain work permits, use the Canadian public health-care system, and even collect welfare.

All of this creates a particularly powerful border-crossing incentive for refugees in the United States who have exhausted the limits of the American immigration system. This is very much the case with the large number of Haitians who have crossed into Quebec recently, migrants who are not fleeing “Trump” so much as his administration’s decision to rescind a temporary deportation amnesty imposed by President Obama in the wake of that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

When the executive branch offers a temporary amnesty for humanitarian purposes, as it has done repeatedly since Congress granted such powers in 1990, there is an implied obligation that those benefitting from this conditional right will be aware of its specific terms — in the case of the Haitians, the reality that their country would eventually rebuild to the point where their return could be morally justified. (The conclusion that Haiti is now safe enough to be deported to, incidentally, is one the Trudeau administration shares.) Over the decades, countless temporarily protected refugees in America have found ways to upgrade their immigration status to something more permanent, while others have failed and returned home. It is the rule of law, more than any uniquely sinister or sadistic president, that many of the border-crossers seek to flee.

Those inclined to view North American politics as a simple morality fable may find none of this nuance compelling. If we rob refugees of all agency, individualism, and responsibility, and simply treat them as bit players in the grand drama of Donald Trump, Destroyer of Worlds, then it’s easy to frame their plight as a crisis America has caused, and that generous, passive Canada is trying to cure.

Those who believe there is some worth in a civilization whose compassion is managed through enforced standards of justice, procedure, and precedent will find the morality tale troubling for different reasons. And they might easily contest Canada’s supposed role as the good guy.

J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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