OTTAWA - Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is promising to speed up processing of family reunification and skilled workers' immigration applications without saying whether he would maintain the Liberal government's target of accepting about 400,000 new immigrants every year.
Speaking to reporters in Russell, Ont., O'Toole said an economic recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic requires "rising immigration," but he didn't say how many immigrants a Conservative government would welcome to Canada.
"We need increasing immigration to grow this country," O'Toole said.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many federal programs and forced his government to suspend immigration completely last year because it had to close the borders.
At a campaign stop in Richmond, B.C., Trudeau said he would increase the immigration targets if re-elected to make up for the time lost during the pandemic.
Andrew Griffith, a former director at the federal Immigration Department, said the Conservatives might not maintain the Liberals' immigration levels but it would be unlikely that they would decrease the numbers of new immigrants dramatically.
"I suspect that they don't want to get tied down in numbers because if they put in a lower number, they'll be tarred with the racist or xenophobic brush unfairly," he said.
While the Conservatives' platform doesn't include any promises related to citizenship applications, Trudeau is promising to eliminate application fees for permanent residents applying for citizenship, a promise he made in the 2019 election and has not fulfilled yet.
"Making it cheaper for people to become citizens because we need them to contribute fully to this country," Trudeau said without saying why his government has not delivered on this promise in the last years.
Both the Conservatives and the Liberals are promising to reform the immigration system by speeding up application processing, ending backlogs and helping newcomers get their foreign credentials recognized in Canada.
The Conservatives' platform includes specific policy proposals including a promise to replace government-assisted refugee spots with more private and jointly sponsored ones without reducing the financial commitment to refugee sponsorship or lower overall numbers of accepted refugees in Canada.
"I don't think that's terribly realistic because we do have obligations, international obligations," Griffith said.
The Conservatives said this policy is because "privately sponsored refugees are more likely to succeed than publicly sponsored ones," but Griffith said the research shows that government-sponsored refugees are not doing that much worse than other refugees and other immigrants over the long term.
He said it’s surprising that the Conservatives didn’t include any specific measures in their platform to fight racism that many immigrants continue to face.
The Liberals have several measures to combat racism including promises to introduce a national anti-hate plan, and to implement measure to improve the justice and policing systems to better serve minority communities without discrimination.
In a French video posted on his Twitter account Monday, O'Toole said that if elected, he would close the Roxham Road informal border crossing with the United States where thousands of asylum seekers have crossed to Quebec in the last few years.
O'Toole is promising in his platform to create a "joint border patrol" with the U.S. at and near high-traffic points on the border to stop asylum seekers from entering Canada.
Robert Falconer, a researcher at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy, said O'Toole's proposal won’t solve the issue because of the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S.
The agreement means that those arriving in Canada from the U.S. through a legal port of entry are not eligible to make asylum claims because they must seek refugee status in the first "safe country" they pass through.
The agreement does not apply to irregular border crossings, so Canada cannot deport refugee claimants the moment they step on Canadian soil before hearing their claim.
Falconer said if O'Toole wants to change that he would need to negotiate changes to the agreement with the U.S.
O'Toole said it's "unfair" that some are coming to Canada "in a way that's illegal" while others are applying through the immigration and refugee system.
Asylum seekers who cross the border through informal crossing points have legal protection under Canadian law to have their refugee claims heard by immigration authorities.
The legal protection of refugee claimants was established in Canada after the Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that asylum seekers enjoy the protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the federal government should hear their claims, Falconer said.
Falconer said the RCMP has been arresting asylum seekers after they cross the border since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to return them to the U.S. due to public health measures.
"They are actually given contact information, their asylum claim is still valid in Canada but they have still to wait on the U.S. side of the border for an answer," he said.
The COVID-19 public health measures have caused a drop in the numbers of those crossing to Canada at informal crossing points.
According to government data, 16,503 asylum seekers crossed to Canada in 2019 compared to 3,302 in 2020 and only 232 in the first seven months of this year.
"Some of this will be motivated by travel restrictions outside Canada — U.S. public health measures, like a U.S. travel restriction on flights from countries like India or Nigeria with high-COVID counts," Falconer said.
"Some of it, however, will be the deterrence factor presented by Canada returning cross-border claimants to the U.S. for processing."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.