Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is vowing to deport asylum seekers who are caught sneaking into Canada, following a visit to the Manitoba town that's been a hotspot for border crossers.
Leitch was in Manitoba on Friday to meet with town officials and residents from the town of Emerson and also made stops in Altona and Morris, Man.
"This is a serious issue and it needs a plan," Leitch told CBC.
Hundreds of asylum seekers have crossed the border near Emerson so far this year. Manitoba RCMP took 331 asylum seekers into custody from Jan.1 to March 31 alone.
Many others crossed the border and made their way into Winnipeg without getting caught.
Rita Chahal, the executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, said Welcome Place, a newcomer settlement agency, has filled out paperwork for 425 refugee claimants so far this year as of last Friday.
Leitch said she would take a hard-line stance on the issue.
"Individuals that enter our country illegally should be detained, should be questioned and sent back to the United States."
'Illegal migration unfair'
"Illegal migration is unfair to those who apply properly and legally," she said.
The Conservative leadership candidate scolded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not visiting Emerson himself — something she said town officials told her they were angry about.
"Our prime minister has acted irresponsibly," she said.
"It'd be nice to know that he is actually hearing what's going on and realizes what's happening," Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen added.
Leitch said if an asylum seeker wants to make a refugee claim, they should show up to a port of entry where a border officer can screen them. "We'd probably be quite generous to them," she said.
But Janet Dench, a national refugee advocate with the Canadian Council for Refugees, said it's not that simple.
"Obviously it's much better for them in so many ways if they could present themselves at a border."
Dench said asylum seekers want to come to an official port of entry but most can't because of the Safe Third Country Agreement.
The agreement forces asylum seekers to make a claim for refugee status in the first safe country they arrive in, meaning migrants who've arrived in the U.S. from another country aren't eligible to apply for refugee status in Canada, with few exceptions.
One is that a claim can be heard if someone has found a way into Canada somewhere other than an official port of entry.
Dench said some asylum seekers have made claims at the border but if they don't fall under one of the exceptions, the refugee claimant is sent back to the U,S. and barred from making a further claim.
She said some have gone on to cross irregularly after being denied and have tried to make a refugee claim in Canada but they are denied because they've already tried once.
"And in those cases those people face being sent back to their home country. They cannot be sent back to the United States," Dench said.
'Refugees asking us to save their lives'
Dench said many of the asylum seekers who've entered Canada recently have fled persecution in a home country and many don't feel safe in the United States anymore.
"Refugees are asking us to help them save their lives."
Janzen said he is in favour of ending a loophole in the agreement that lets asylum seekers make refugee claims if they've crossed irregularly.
He said asylum seekers should have their claims instead heard at the border, so they don't have to sneak across it.
Leitch said there would be no exceptions to her policy on border jumpers.
"My answer is not going to change no matter how many different ways you ask it. We have a system. Our system is fair and extremely generous," she said.