Simple solution to Roxham Road problem


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If ever there were a solution in search of a problem it is the implementation of the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).

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If ever there were a solution in search of a problem it is the implementation of the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).

The Immigration and Refugee Board, created in 1989 by the Progessive Conservative Mulroney government, was humming along very smoothly until the Liberal government of Paul Martin decided in 2004 that a makeover was necessary and the STCA came into force.

The purpose of the agreement was not refugee-friendly — it was intended to prevent refugees in the United States from appearing at an official Canadian border crossing to make their claim, and vice versa, subject to limited exceptions such as having immediate family members already in the country.

With our much-praised refugee-determination system and generous social benefits attracting refugees to our border, Canadian politicians expected this agreement would reduce the refugee flow. American politicians with the same goal of reducing refugee traffic into their own country had the same expectation.

As everyone knows by now, the giant loophole of restricting the STCA to only official border crossings simply shifted the refugee flow to irregular crossings, with Roxham Road at the Quebec-New York State border emerging as the most popular.

Political short-sightedness is hardly a new phenomenon; however, the current situation, with volumes of claimants overwhelming the capacity of Quebec’s social services, was entirely foreseeable.

The STCA is premised upon both Canada and the U.S. being safe countries for refugees. However, once the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant posture became apparent in 2017, the flow of refugee claimants to our border skyrocketed and, apart from a pandemic-related pause, has not abated.

A Band-Aid measure of busing refugees to other provinces is hardly a solution — it has recently seen French-speaking Haitian refugees who should be allowed to remain in Quebec bused to Niagara Falls, where language impediments have made it difficult to access medical and other urgently needed social services.

The STCA needs to be renegotiated with the United States and, if agreement is not possible, simply torn up. Canada is a sovereign nation and the United States cannot dictate to us who can enter our country at our own ports of entry.

Some politicians have suggested deeming the length of the U.S.-Canada border an official crossing, or closing down Roxham Road. This will only invite refugee claimants to enter the country undetected at any number of other locations across our 9,000-kilometre border with the U.S.

A more realistic and effective solution is to incentivize refugees to make their claim at an official border crossing, as opposed to entering irregularly and launching a refugee claim from inside Canada.

The pre-2004 regime should be restored, which would allow, with limited exceptions, any refugee arriving from the U.S. to claim at an official U.S.-Canada border crossing and have their claim heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board. The IRB was efficiently managing its caseload prior to 2004; imposition of the STCA created more problems than it solved.

After sufficient notice, word would quickly get out to refugee communities that irregular crossings are no longer necessary and that claims can again be made in an orderly fashion at official ports of entry. This measure alone would vastly reduce if not eliminate irregular crossings along the U.S. border and restore a sense of control over who is entering our country and where. It would redistribute refugee flow to the many official border crossing that straddle the U.S. Canada border and would relieve the pressure on Quebec.

The Americans should have no policy objections to this change, as it would not affect the number of refugees directed back to the United States, which is the Americans’ main concern.

Traffic at Roxham Road would soon reduce to a trickle, stopping altogether once it becomes clear that refugee claims can again be made where they should be made — at ports of entry.

It has been unseemly for a progressive and developed nation like Canada to see its prospective immigrants entering the country by traipsing through snowbanks and country roads. This modification of the STCA would be a win-win for everyone; in anticipation of U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Canada, it should be negotiated quickly with the U.S. government.

Max Berger is an immigration lawyer based in Toronto.

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