GOP shifts focus of attacks on Biden's immigration policy to Canada-U.S. border

WASHINGTON — Canada's border with the United States, the longest in the world and an enduring symbol of bilateral co-operation, has largely avoided becoming a partisan cudgel on Capitol Hill.

That, however, may be about to change.

Two House Republicans, Rep. Mike Kelly from Pennsylvania and Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, have enlisted 26 fellow members of Congress for a new coalition focused on immigration, crime and national security at the Canada-U.S. border.

Kelly and Zinke co-chair what they're calling the "Northern Border Security Caucus" — a group billed as bipartisan, although it's unclear just how many Democrats, if any, are taking part.

Members "are concerned about the increased human and drug trafficking, along with the decrease in Border Patrol agents and lack of security, along the U.S.-Canada border," Kelly's office said in a news release.

"Recent news reports, along with data compiled over the past two years, show a surge in illegal migrant crossings and drug trafficking across the northern border."

House Republicans expected to attend a launch event Tuesday include North Dakota Rep. Kelly Armstrong, Minnesota Rep. Pete Stauber, Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York, Michigan Rep. Lisa McClain and Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas.

Officials from the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents, are also expected to attend Tuesday's event, including vice-president and Fox News fixture Hector Garza.

Kelly and Zinke first began soliciting interest in the caucus back in January with an invitation to all members of Congress, known in Capitol Hill parlance as a "Dear Colleague" letter.

But the rhetoric in that letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press, suggests the caucus is as much about attacking one of President Joe Biden's weakest political flanks as it is about national security.

"Southern states have been overwhelmed with record illegal immigration, drug smuggling and crime that has continuously poured into the local communities. The Biden administration has sat back and watched these great states bear the brunt of disastrous and dangerous policies," the letter reads.

"Understandably, all the attention has been on the southern border. Meanwhile, America's northern border has been ignored all while quietly facing its own crises."

Those challenges include what the letter describes as a "fifteenfold" increase in what U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials call "border encounters" in the last two years, as well as a spike in drug smuggling.

From October through January, the first four months of fiscal 2023, the agency recorded 55,736 encounters at or near the Canada-U.S. border. Those are people deemed inadmissible due to their immigration status or under Title 42, the pandemic-era public health order.

That number was more than twice the nearly 24,000 encounters that took place during the same four months the previous year, and already halfway to the 109,535 reported during the entire 12-month stretch of fiscal 2022.

The data includes 2,227 northern border encounters by the U.S. Border Patrol during the first quarter of fiscal 2023, nearly matching the 2,238 reported by agents over the entire previous 12-month period.

The issue, long obscured in the U.S. by the hundreds of thousands of encounters that happen each month near the southern border, erupted into public view last winter when a family of four Indian nationals died of exposure in Manitoba during a fearsome blizzard, just steps from the border.

A Florida man arrested by U.S. border agents in Minnesota, not far from where the bodies were found, is now facing human smuggling charges.

And as recently as Feb. 19, U.S. officials recovered the body of a man from Mexico who was believed to have entered Vermont from Quebec.

Customs and Border Protection officials at the northern border are often called upon to help support their Mexico-U.S. colleagues, "further exacerbating existing personnel shortages," Zinke and Kelly wrote in their letter.

"Even though the northern border is twice the size of the southern border, it is considerably under-supervised and under-secured," it reads.

"House Republican leaders are correct when they say, 'Every state is a border state.' Our country and communities cannot continue to go unnoticed in the conversation of border security."

Perhaps not coincidentally, the House Committee on Homeland Security has a hearing scheduled Tuesday to examine what it calls the "widespread and debilitating impact" of the Biden administration's handling of migration at the southern border.

Canada, too, has its own issues when it comes to irregular migration across the border.

Would-be asylum seekers have been flowing from the U.S. across the land border into Canada for years, especially at Roxham Road, a spot near the town of Hemmingford, Que., that's arguably Canada's busiest unofficial border crossing.

Streams of people, some of them having entered the U.S. at the southern border, routinely make their way to the junction, where the Safe Third Country Agreement — a Canada-U.S. treaty that turns around would-be refugees who try to make a claim at an official crossing — doesn't currently apply.

Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board reported 5,599 asylum claims by "irregular border crossers" between July and September 2022, compared with 5,148 during the same stretch of 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's the highest total for that three-month period since 2017, former president Donald Trump's first year in office, when more than 8,500 people slipped over the border and into Canada in search of asylum.

With those numbers ticking back up, the political pressure has been mounting on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre wants him to shut down Roxham Road; Quebec Premier François Legault has urged him to press the U.S. to renegotiate the bilateral agreement that opened the loophole in the first place.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press