Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is promising to end illegal border crossings by asylum seekers entering Canada outside official points, and says his government would focus on economic immigration and helping to protect the refugees in greatest danger.
Holding a campaign event this morning at Roxham Road in Quebec, an unofficial border crossing that has become a flashpoint in Canada's immigration debate, Scheer said the flow of people coming to Canada outside border points has led to a "crisis in confidence" in the immigration system.
"For Canadians to have faith in the immigration system, the rules have to be followed and the laws have to be enforced. As prime minister, that's exactly what I will do," he said.
Between January and August this year, RCMP intercepted 10,343 people entering the country from the U.S. outside legal border points, the vast majority of them at Roxham Road. That's down from 14,125 in the same period in 2018.
As part of the Conservative clampdown, Scheer said his government would hire 250 new Canada Border Services Agency officers, deploy more Immigration and Refugee Board judges to "hotspots" to expedite claims, and closely monitor criminal groups that pose a threat to Canada, including MS-13 gang members.
U.S. President Donald Trump has long railed against the violent international street gang MS-13, using the threat it poses to justify the construction of a southern border wall.
Asked why he was raising the spectre of MS-13, Scheer said it is crucial for law enforcement to track people with criminal backgrounds trying to enter the country.
"We want to make sure that when people come into Canada, we are putting the safety and security of Canadians first. That is paramount," he said.
During a campaign event in Markham, Ont. ahead of Scheer's announcement, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he's pleased that people will have an opportunity to see the infrastructure the Liberal government built to screen and process new arrivals. But he stressed there are no "shortcuts" in Canada's immigration system and everyone is subject to the same rules.
"There are no skipping steps with our immigration system. Everyone arriving in Canada goes through the same immigration system, a full, rigorous immigration system that is being applied," he said.
Trudeau said Canada continues to work with partners in the U.S. and around the world to spread that message, and talks continue on a possible update to the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).
That agreement requires that asylum seekers make their claim for protection in the first safe country they arrive in. The agreement makes an exception for those who arrive in Canada outside of official border points.
Trudeau said Canadians remain in favour of immigration because they understand it benefits the economy and their communities.
"It only stays positively supported by Canadians because they have confidence that our immigration system works. And it works," he said.
Scheer said he would close the "loophole" in the STCA by negotiating with the U.S. for a new deal that benefits both countries. Asked how he would do that if the U.S. doesn't agree, Scheer said an updated STCA is his "preferred course of action" but that he would also explore other options to seal the border.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party would suspend the STCA so that migrants would not need to to cross outside of the official border points.
"These are people that are fleeing death. They're fleeing persecution. And in the States, they're fleeing the fact that Mr. Trump has been putting kids in cages, has been stripping babies out of the arms of their mothers," he said.
"Of course they're afraid and they're fleeing what they know is a scary situation in the States. And so right now they have no other recourse but to cross irregularly."
The Liberals have long criticized the Conservative proposal to close the loophole by applying the STCA across the entire border, saying the notion is unworkable because it would require a massive number enforcement officers along the expansive 9,000 km border, as well as cooperation from the U.S. side.
Prompting move to dangerous locations
They've also said that cracking down on Roxham Road could prompt people to venture across at more remote and dangerous locations.
Maxime Bernier, the leader of the fledgling People's Party of Canada, has taken a hardline stand on immigration, pushing proposals to slash immigration levels and build a fence at Roxham Road.
He said he gets the most cheers from crowds at his campaign events when he speaks candidly about immigration issues.
"We're not anti-immigration, we're not for mass immigration. We just want 150,000 a year and more of them must be there to fill our economic needs," he said in a recent interview with CBC.
Liberal candidate Ahmed Hussen, who served as immigration minister, said those proposals are out of step with the wishes of employers and provincial and municipal leaders looking to fill labour shortages through immigration.
"The way our demographics are going and our labour market needs and skills shortages, immigration is not the only tool, but it's a key tool to address those challenges," he told CBC.
Hussen said Bernier has been using anxieties about immigration to divide people and spread misinformation and fear.
'Fast, fair and final'
Hussen said the Liberals managed to reduce waiting times and expedite processing for immigration cases, adding the goal is to be "fair, fast and final."
He said Canada's immigration system is an international success story that elicits envy in other parts of the world.
Michelle Rempel, who served as the Conservative Party's immigration critic, said there's a growing perception that the Liberals mismanaged the border and lost their grip on what has been seen as a fair and compassionate immigration system.
During the campaign, Rempel said, she's been hearing from a lot of new Canadians who see illegal border crossings as an abuse of the system.
"The system is no longer fair and it no longer helps the world's most vulnerable, and it's wrong," she told CBC.
"I think Justin Trudeau's approach to humanitarian immigration has caused budgetary problems for provincial governments and backlogs in our immigration system for people who are trying to come to the country through other streams, a backlog in the Immigration and Refugee Board. All of those things have created a lack of trust in our capacity for our immigration system to be managed fairly."