Understanding the Canadian Border Today

The Canadian government must acknowledge and respond to the humanitarian crisis facing transnational migrant communities in the United States— as it has in the past.

Patricia Martin 11/11/2017

A child at a border crossing in LaColle, Quebec. (CBC/Youtube)

“U.S. refugee crackdown boosts exodus to Canada,” proclaimed a headline in the Toronto Star on January 15, 1987. Indeed, in late 1986 and early 1987, shortly after the U.S. government passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), Canada saw a marked increase in the number of refugees—particularly from El Salvador—entering from the United States. According to the same Star article, Canadian “immigration officials had recorded 640 arrivals from El Salvador and 55 from Guatemala, all by bus to Montreal or other Québec destinations” in the previous two weeks alone.

Thirty years later, a very similar geopolitical movement of people is underway. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump and his administration’s immediate deepening of the political assault on immigrants in the United States, Canada experienced an increase in the number of people crossing the border to request political asylum. According to recent statistics, the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) has “intercepted” over 15,000 individuals this year who have entered Canada in an unauthorized manner to request refugee status.

A comparison of these two moments of shifting mobility captures how the Canadian border has progressively closed itself to refugee claimants over the last three decades. In the intervening years, Canada has engaged in deep integration with the United States’s immigration regime.

Historically, the Canadian government has sought to distinguish itself from the United States in the arena of refugee policy, writes María Cristina García in her 2006 book Seeking Refuge. Accordingly, the Canadian government maintained a certain political distance from U.S. policies regarding Central America while carving out a reputation for humanitarian action globally. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration refused to view those fleeing the state terror exacted by the U.S.-backed Right-wing military regime as politically motivated, instead characterizing Salvadorans as economic migrants. In the 1980s, as activists launched the sanctuary movement in the United States, Canada, in fact, emerged as the more humane place of refuge.

In the wake of the unanticipated arrival of Salvadorans to Canada in the late 1980s, the acceptance rate for refugee status was relatively high; García cites a rate of 77%. At the time, Canada also directly sponsored Salvadoran refugees from Central America, Mexico, and the United States. 

However, the number of Salvadorans who arrived in Canada from the United States was modest. Between 1986 and 1990, approximately 9,500 Salvadorans crossed the border requesting refugee status. This amounts to just a small portion of the approximately 500,000 Salvadorans, the vast majority undocumented, who migrated to the United States in the 1980s.  

Nonetheless, a language of crisis emerged in the Canadian media with regards to refugee claims. Another article from the Toronto Star in May of 1987 discusses, for example, “emergency measures” taken by the government in February 1987, “to choke off a flood of refugee applicants…” At the same time the Canadian government initiated policy reforms that signaled the start of the slow closing of the border, particularly for those attempting to request asylum. Indeed, at this time Canada first passed legislation to enact a Third Safe Country policy—which would have allowed Canada to identify countries considered to have equivalent protections for refugee claimants and oblige individuals to apply for asylum in whichever country they first arrived. The policy eventually expired without going into effect. García argues that an unresolved debate regarding whether the United States should be placed on the Safe Country list or not remained a major impediment to its implementation.

Early this year, as the number of people crossing the border to claim refugee status in Canada increased, Canadian media coverage also flirted with the language of crisis. Some outlets warned of an impending “flood” of unauthorized border crossings. According to the previously cited statistics, the number of individuals arriving in Canada hovered around 800 per month in April and May. Through the summer the numbers began to climb again, however. In July, over 3,000 asylum claimants crossed the border, and in August the number reached over 5,000, only to drop, in turn, to around 1,800 in September. Reflecting a range of groups targeted by the Trump administration, refugee claimants were predominantly of African, North African, and Middle Eastern origins throughout the winter, many identifying as Muslim, while this summer Haitians formed a significant percentage of those seeking refuge.

In May of this year, General John Kelly (then-Secretary of Homeland Security) issued a statement indicating that the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) offered to Haitians in the wake of the 2010 earthquake would only be extended on a limited basis. Accordingly, Haitians living in the United States with such status were urged to prepare to return to their country of birth. Fearful of deportation, some Haitians headed north to seek political protection in Canada. This trend is likely to continue, given that the United States government is actively evaluating the TPS status for other national groups. Indeed, officials announced on November 6 that TPS would end in 12 months for Nicaraguans. As a result, the Canadian government expects refugee claimants from a range of vulnerable groups to continue to attempt to cross the U.S.-Canada border into the near future.  

Contrary to the 1980s, however, this contemporary geopolitical migration has taken a very particular form, demonstrating the degree to which Canadian refugee policy has slowly been transformed. Now, when individuals fearful of persecution and/or deportation attempt to gain access to Canadian territory from the United States, the majority must do so by crossing in an unauthorized manner. Canada is a signatory country to the Geneva Convention, and thereby has a series of obligations to accept those seeking refuge at its borders. However, due to the Canada-U.S. Third Safe Country Agreement (TSCA), a treaty signed in the wake of 9/11, Canadian border officials can now refuse entry to individuals and families seeking such protection at official ports of entry, effectively throwing them back into the hands of U.S. immigration system.

The TSCA requires asylum-seekers to apply for refugee status in the first ‘safe’ country they arrive in. Through the TSCA, the Canadian government affirms that the United States is compliant with its international obligations with regard to refugees. Individuals who arrive in the United States, therefore, must seek asylum there. This agreement applies only to official entry points on the U.S.-Canada border. Therefore, people residing in or traveling through the United States who wish to seek asylum in Canada can only do so by crossing in an unauthorized manner and then filing for refugee status. If they cross at an official port of entry, border patrol will boot them back to the United States. Accordingly, some individuals seeking asylum have followed life-threatening routes to cross the border, most notably in winter months. Moreover, the imposed use of unauthorized crossings leads inevitably to a language of “illegality,” “criminality” or “abuse,” systematically undercutting the legitimate political subjectivity of those who dare to cross the border to request asylum.

To date, the Canadian government’s response to the new wave of asylum-seekers has been one of mixed messages. In a now-famous tweet from January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith…” only to tweet this summer, “…people who cross the border in an irregular way will not be at an advantage,” and, “…we are a country of laws.”

The Canadian government has pushed the argument that current migration policy meets asylum demands and needs no revision. But they have at the same time taken unprecedented and contradictory actions that suggest changes are necessary. For example, they have established two “camps” near the border to house and process asylum seekers. They have also sent Haitian and Argentinian-born Members of Parliament to the United States to warn Haitians and Central Americans that they run a significant risk of deportation if they cross the Canadian border to request refugee status.

It is time for clear political and humanitarian leadership to distinguish the Canadian border from the contemporary United States immigration regime. If the current situation along the U.S.-Canada border represents a “crisis,” it is only so for vulnerable individuals and groups who have endured forced displacement multiple times, making the prospect of building a life anywhere nearly impossible. Those who cross the border to seek refuge are not criminals and should not be criminalized. They are, rather, political subjects who make precariousness and transnational displacement visible, produced in part by the violence of the U.S.-led global political and economic arenas. The Canadian government should fully acknowledge the depth of the humanitarian crisis among trannational migrant communities in the United States and respond accordingly.

In August, the Canadian Council of Refugees (CCR) issued a statement offering concrete suggestions for a way forward in response to asylum claimants arriving in Canada to request refuge. In addition to a significant increase in funding for agencies handling current refugee claims, the CCR has urged the government to broaden the criteria used to determine refugee status to include humanitarian factors, or forms of hardship and suffering that do not fit within the current definition of refugees. Furthermore, and most importantly, the CCR urges the government to withdraw from the TSCA with the United States, in order to once again allow individuals in the United States to apply for refugee status in Canada in a fully-authorized manner.   

Through such actions, the Canadian government could set itself apart from the U.S. immigration regime and reclaim the Canadian border as a site of inclusion and solidarity. Anything less will continue to erode the human rights of vulnerable and persecuted migrants in the United States, in Canada, and elsewhere.


Patricia Martin is an associate professor in the Geography Department at the Université de Montréal. A specialist in Mexican politics and development, she conducts research on various forms of social and political violence in Mexico and is currently exploring the geopolitics of human mobility between Latin America and Canada.

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