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Liberal ministers go to Canada-U.S. border to warn migrants against crossing

Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale, centre, surveys the U.S.-Canadian border in Hemmingford, Que., during a Monday tour.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS

Two Liberal cabinet ministers travelled to the Canada-U.S. border on Monday to warn that people making irregular crossings on foot were not getting a free pass into the country as Ottawa attempts to stem the flow of migrants.

"It's very important … that people understand very clearly that Canadian law applies, and we will be assiduous in enforcing that law, and people should not think that border hopping is a desirable or productive thing to do," said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who toured facilities at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle with Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

The comments echo Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's statement on Sunday that people coming into Canada illegally will gain no fast track to residency, suggesting the government is concerned some Canadians are worried about the surge of thousands of refugee claimants in recent months.

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The number of migrants at the Quebec border has swelled to 3,800 in August, more than during the entire month of July – and nearly five times the number that arrived in June – causing Ottawa to open temporary shelters in Quebec and Ontario to cope with the influx. Ottawa has sought to contain perceptions that the cross-border influx may have grown out of control.

Canadians have seen refugee-style border camps and newcomers housed in the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. In addition to the army tents at the U.S. border in Quebec, the government opened a temporary shelter in Cornwall, Ont.

Federal officials say they have added 34 officers‎ at the Lacolle port of entry to handle the influx at the border, as well as additional resources to process claims. Still, delays to get an initial eligibility hearing, instead of being held in 60 days, have stretched to five months.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said that in real numbers, only 15 new border-service officers have been moved to the Quebec-U.S. border to join 90 existing agents, and that interview times with individual asylum seekers have been dramatically reduced.

"We shouldn't be alarmist, but our agents have had to work very rapidly," Mr. Fortin said in an interview. "Agents I represent say they are facing a lot of pressure."

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Mr. Hussen says the number of claimants at the border has eased in recent days, to about 140 a day, but it was too soon to say whether the dip was temporary. Ottawa has multiplied appearances by federal MPs at the Quebec border with New York State as images of army encampments and refugee claimants walking across the border and into RCMP custody continue making news both in Canada and in the United States.

The federal government is also stepping up efforts to try to stem the flow at its source. It is sending Haitian-Canadian MP Emmanuel Dubourg to Miami, home to a sizable Haitian community, to dispel the notion that the migrants crossing on foot into Quebec will all obtain refugee status in Canada.

Many of those arriving at the land border crossing in Quebec are Haitians fearful that their Temporary Protected Status in the United States, granted to them after their country's 2010 earthquake, will end under the Trump administration.

Amid the surge in migrants, anti-immigration groups have become more visible in recent weeks, with a protest by a far-right organization in Quebec City over the weekend calling for tighter border controls.

While the dramatic scenes of families crossing the border on foot have captured Canadians' attention, researchers say the inflow is not unprecedented. Figures published in August by the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary note Canada has long received asylum claimants, and the numbers peaked in 2001 at nearly 45,000 claims, including 13,000 in Quebec.

"The recent crisis may have made many Canadians aware of asylum-seekers for the first time, however, they have been arriving to Canada in significant numbers for many years," the report said. It added that "projected values for 2017 are similar to those of 2000 and 2008."

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Video: People gather in Montreal to welcome asylum seekers (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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