Mexico summit could pave way to ending visa spat

OTTAWA — Mexico’s president won’t get any short-term guarantees when he urges Prime Minister Stephen Harper this weekend to drop new travel restrictions on his citizens. But he may get his wish eventually.

OTTAWA — Mexico’s president won’t get any short-term guarantees when he urges Prime Minister Stephen Harper this weekend to drop new travel restrictions on his citizens.

But he may get his wish eventually.

Mexican officials say President Felipe Calderon, who is hosting a two-day North American Leaders’ Summit in Guadalajara starting Sunday, will urge Harper to reconsider a visa requirement recently slapped on Mexican travellers.

The Canadian government says that’s impossible — for now.

“I don’t anticipate the lifting of visas at this upcoming summit,” said Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas.

“We are reviewing our refugee policies. . . In the short term, I think what’s important here is to preserve the integrity of the Canadian immigration system.”

But other officials strongly hinted that Canada will drop the visa requirement once the system works faster and is better able to cope with thousands of in-land refugee claimants.

“We could definitely lift visas on a lot more countries — including Mexico and the Czech Republic,” said one government official.

“It’s not like we enjoy imposing visas on friendly countries.”

Last month, Ottawa began forcing visas on travellers from Mexico or the Czech Republic, which produce the greatest number of Canada’s refugee claims.

With the refugee system burdened by an ever-expanding backlog of cases, the government says it plans reforms this fall that would speed up processing times.

Mexican officials say they have pressed Canada to consider measures like pre-screening passengers at Mexican airports, to weed out false refugee claimants there.

They describe the visa policy as an administrative headache for the 250,000 Mexicans who visit Canada each year, and an affront coming from a friendly nation.

“Mr. Calderon will bring up the visa issue with Mr. Harper,” said a Mexican official.

“We’ll propose some actions to modify the Canadian measure.”

The news of the visa restriction could not have come at a worse time for Mexico.

It was delivered personally by Harper to Calderon in a conversation while that country was in the midst of a health and economic panic over swine flu,” an official said.

“(Harper) sort of said, ‘Felipe, we’re going to impose the visas. But we’re not going to do it during H1N1,’

“(Calderon) was grateful we didn’t do it during H1N1.”

The gathering in Guadalajara may be the first North American summit in memory where Canada’s relationship with Mexico — and not the U.S. — generates the lion’s share of attention.

Harper and Calderon will have a pair of meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama — including supper on Sunday evening — where they will discuss the recession, the flu pandemic, climate change and security.

There will be no one-on-one meeting with Obama, but Harper’s office announced Friday that he will visit the White House for a private meeting on Sept. 16.

The visa measure has been frustrating for Mexican businesspeople, vacationers, and tourists. It’s been especially difficult for visitors in outlying regions, who need to bring or mail their passports to Mexico City for processing at the Canadian embassy, an official said.

Canada says it will set up small application centres at various points around the country.

But one Canadian official said the pre-screening idea was a non-starter. He said the British government tried it at Czech airports, and the measure was ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

“Our Supreme Court would probably do the same,” he said. “Under what legal grounds could we go to Mexico and refuse to let people board their flights?”

Canada insists the new policy is working.

More than 15,000 visas have been issued in Mexico City since July 31 — with 90 per cent of applicants accepted. At the same time, the number of refugee claimants has plummeted.

There have been only 17 such refugee claims from Mexico since July 16, compared with 225 claims the two previous weeks.

The vast majority of those Mexican applicants — about 90 per cent — were deemed ineligible for refugee status.