February 13, 2017 – Small border towns like Emerson, Manitoba, look set to come into the spotlight increasingly over the coming months as U.S. President Donald Trump looks for more ways to crack down on immigration.
Just 700 people live in the town across the border from North Dakota, which is the first point of arrival for many immigrants who brave the freezing weather to try and escape the U.S. and make it into Canada.
A recent surge in numbers trying to make the trek across the border is being linked to Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim countries.
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The president’s message that immigrants are not welcome has left thousands fearing for their futures, regardless of whether they are from one of the countries specifically covered by the executive order.
It is not so much the order itself – which is currently suspended following legal action – but the hostile attitude it fosters towards immigrants in America.
Immigrants no longer feel welcome in the U.S., they are looking for an escape route, and Canada appears to be top the chosen destination for many.
On one day alone earlier in February, RCMP officers picked up 19 asylum seekers who had crossed the border near Emerson.
When the officers tried to hand them over to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), they were told there was no room. An Emerson municipality official had to open up the town hall to provide shelter to the would-be refugees.
CBSA figures show a marked increase in these illegal border crossings in the last three years.
The 2013-2014 fiscal year saw 68 cases, 2015-2016 saw 321 and there have been 403 already this fiscal year, ending March 30.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale pointed out that these numbers are down significantly on 10 years ago, when thousands used to make the journey across the Canada-U.S. border.
The issue comes down to the Safe Third Country Agreement, signed by both Canada and the U.S.
It means asylum seekers who claim refugee status in one country cannot simply hop to the next if they are rejected.
This means they would be turned down immediately if they turned up at an official U.S.-Canada border crossing.
However, if they make it across the border, they are checked for medical conditions and then the majority make a request for refugee status, after which they are seen by a judge within two months. Around 60 per cent of those hearings result in the subject being given refugee status in Canada.
Manitoba is not the only border province to see an increase in numbers crossing into Canada illegally.
Five times the number of people entered Quebec from the U.S. illegally in 2016 compared to the previous year, again according to CBSA figures. More than 1,200 claimed refugee status in Canada in 2016.
Syrians, Sudanese and Yemenis are the main nationalities, creating the impression that U.S. immigrants are fleeing Trump’s crackdown.
The CBSA has faced criticism for using provincial jails to hold immigration detainees. Generally, only those who break the law, for example by bringing drugs or other contraband over the border, are put in prison.
If officials cannot establish identity, or the subject is deemed a flight risk or security concern, they may enter immigration detention.
As part of the immigration detention system, some are housed in provincial jails, although the CBSA is working towards minimizing the numbers of people treated in this way.
Canada has been criticized from within and from the outside over its policies on keeping immigration detainees indefinitely.
The campaign to make the CBSA more transparent gathered momentum in May 2016 as a 24-year-old man died in an Edmonton provincial jail, becoming the 15th to die in CBSA custody since 2000.
More than 100 senior Ontario lawyers signed an open letter to Yasir Naqvi, Ontario Community Safety and Correctional Services Manager, expressing concerns that detainees are having their basic human rights violated.
Under an October 2014 agreement, the CBSA can move detainees without explanation from immigration holding centres to provincial jails.
Transparency is also key, according to Goodale, who says open access for the United Nations, Canadian Red Cross, plus legal and spiritual advisers must be maintained and any complaints responded to properly and with the utmost scrutiny.
Goodale says a quarter of a million travellers cross the Canadian border each day. An average of 400 are detained if they do not meet the legal requirements, cannot be identified, or are deemed a flight or safety risk.
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