Hébert: PM’s words unlikely to stem border flow

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travelled on Wednesday to Montreal – ground zero of the intense media coverage of the asylum-seeking issue – to try to unknit some of his own knitting.

He met with the interprovincial task force set up to co-ordinate the logistics of the response to the influx of would-be asylum seekers that have been crossing the U.S. border into Quebec, as well as with leaders of the Haitian community. In between, the prime minister held a news conference.

What Trudeau did not do was visit one of the many sites where many of those who have walked across the border are temporarily housed. The last thing Canada’s government needs at this juncture is a picture of the prime minister hugging some aspiring asylum seekers.

For if there was a central theme to Trudeau’s Montreal visit, it was that Canada is not in the business of rolling out a red carpet for anyone considering a stroll across the border in search of an alternative haven to the U.S.

As initially articulated over the weekend, Trudeau’s core message was that prospective asylum seekers using an irregular route into Canada should expect no exemptions from the rigorous requirements put in place to deal with such requests.

“Our No. 1 job is to protect our citizens,” he stated in his opening statement, warning once again that all existing rules will apply to the border-crossing asylum seekers. Trudeau also pledged more resources to accelerate the screening process.

That’s the same message the lead ministers on the file have consistently issued, albeit with limited effect, over the past few weeks. The calculation, or at least the hope, is that with the gravitas of the prime minister behind it, the warning will have more weight.

Trudeau’s cautionary body language, his emphasis on maintaining the integrity of Canada’s immigration system, may go some way to appease a rattled domestic public opinion.

Indeed, in his efforts to address some Quebec concerns, Trudeau caught a break of sorts. La Meute – one of the province’s extreme-right fringe groups – has set out to get anti-immigration mileage out of the surge in asylum requests. No Quebec mainstream party wants to be associated with the group. If only temporarily, that has somewhat muted some of the leading critics of the federal government’s handling of the issue.

But Trudeau is undoubtedly aware that for many Canadians the litmus test of his federal strategy will be whether it results in a tapering off of traffic at the border. The sum total of would-be asylum seekers is not wildly out of line with past influxes but the unusual sight of temporary camps being set up to house a growing number of border-crossers suggests anything but business as usual.

For now, the prime minister is still banking on persuasion rather than on dissuasive measures to stem the flow.

On that basis, Trudeau’s tallest order Wednesday and beyond was not to convince voters in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada that his government has matters in hand but rather to dispel the perception in some quarters in the U.S. that his government has an open-door immigration policy.

It was less than a year ago that pictures of Trudeau personally greeting Syrian refugees to Canada circulated worldwide. And when U.S. President Donald Trump initially set out to ban visitors for half-a-dozen Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., Trudeau famously tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith.”

It takes a leap – and a significant dose of bad faith – to translate those words into an invitation for all comers to head for Canada. They need to be read in the context of the time, but they nevertheless struck a more immigration-friendly tone than anything that has come out of the White House since Trump’s swearing-in.

By insisting that potential asylum seekers will be subject to a by-the-book process, the prime minister may help dispel the myths that border-crossers will be welcomed to Canada with open arms and no questions asked.

What he cannot do is change the contrasting political realities of the two countries.

Notwithstanding Trudeau’s admonitions to would-be asylum seekers, it will be hard to convince many of them that their odds of finding a haven are not better in Canada than in Trump’s United States. What would you think if you were in their place?

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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