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US and Canada Announce Joint Plan to Turn Away Asylum-Seekers

The move further undermines the right to asylum and will likely drive people to attempt more dangerous border crossings.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) walks with U.S. President Joe Biden after welcoming him at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, on March 24, 2023.

In a move that critics say will push people to attempt more dangerous border crossings, the United States and Canada on Friday announced an agreement allowing both countries to block migrants from seeking asylum at unofficial points of entry.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosted U.S. President Joe Biden Friday in Ottawa, where the leaders announced the deal. The agreement will allow Canada to turn back migrants at Roxham Road, a popular unofficial crossing between Clinton County, New York and Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec. Canada will also establish a new legal refugee program for 15,000 Latin American and Caribbean migrants.

Trudeau told CNN Thursday that while Canada is “welcoming people from around the world,” the country must “make sure we are doing it in responsible proper ways to continue to have our citizens positive towards immigration as Canadians always are.”

“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

However, Stéphanie Valois, president of the Quebec Association of Immigration Lawyers (AQAADI), asserted that refugees “should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”

“It seems completely counterproductive to me,” she told CBC.

The new deal is an amendment to the 2004 Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), which compels migrants to claim asylum in the first “safe” country they reach, unless they qualify for certain exceptions. The STCA allows U.S. and Canadian authorities to turn away asylum-seekers at official border crossings — but not unofficial ones like Roxham Road.

François Legault, Quebec’s center-right premier, has demanded that Trudeau’s Liberal government resettle refugees in other Canadian provinces. Both Legault and Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre have urged the closure of the Roxham Road crossing, which was used by 40,000 asylum-seekers to enter Canada last year.

“The intention behind the sudden announcement of this deal, which was negotiated in secret, is clear: To limit the ability of some of the world’s most vulnerable people to find lifesaving protection in North America,” Danilo Zak, associate director for policy and advocacy at Church World Service, an interdenominational Christian humanitarian group based in New York City, said in a statement.

“Time and time again, the Biden administration has taken steps to block the movement of people fleeing violence and persecution,” he continued.

Zak added:

We should not stand by while policy after policy tears apart our nation’s commitment to welcome. Given the assault on access to legal protection for the most vulnerable migrants arriving at our borders, it’s questionable whether the United States still qualifies as a “safe third country.” We urge President Biden to strongly reconsider this deal and to work with Congress to restore access to asylum and support policies that recognize the dignity of all those arriving at our borders.

Frantz André of the Comité d’Action des Sans Statut (Action Committee of the People without Status, or CAPSS) told CityNews Montreal that “I’m afraid there might be some kind of a stampede before the closure of Roxham Road.”

In a separate CBC interview, André said that “we’re simply creating the worst scenario possible” for migrants.

Robert Weissman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, pointed to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which both Canada and the United States are signatories: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

Many Latin American and Caribbean migrants are fleeing poverty and political or criminal violence and repression in their home countries, some of it caused by decades of U.S. imperial policies and actions in the region. Others come from as far afield as Asia and the Middle East, including countries like Afghanistan and Yemen that have suffered from years or even decades of war waged or backed by the United States.

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