OTTAWA — The federal government is planning to build temporary housing for up to 520 people at a Quebec border crossing that has seen an influx of asylum seekers.
The move comes as tens of thousands of Hondurans lost temporary protected immigration status in the United States. There are concerns some of them they may look northward for refuge.
Public Works and the Canada Border Services Agency say in a notice that the housing units are for Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle — the municipality where the majority of RCMP interceptions of irregular migrants in Quebec take place.
The Opposition says the Liberal government is effectively setting up a refugee camp at the Canada-U.S. border.
“I’m not sure any Canadian would think that this is an acceptable response,” Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said Friday.
Rempel said there is a frustrating lack of information from the government about the makeup and needs of asylum seekers:
“How can I say how much money they should be needing when we don’t even know what their needs are? And that is the result of having no plan for immigration. It’s bananas.”
In a statement, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale called Rempel’s reference a refugee camp “misleading”, adding that “most irregular crossers do not spend long in custody before being released.”
The housing notice currently calls for “heated, ventilated and illuminated canvas shelters” for three-season use that must include areas for sleeping, security, reception and warehousing.
The government is also looking for other units to serve as quarantine space, toilets and showers as well as systems for drinking water and drainage.
It is not known how many tents are needed at this time, but the border agency says that combined with winterized trailers, the shelters can support up to 700 asylum seekers.
Goodale said the short-term accommodations would be installed to ease pressures on Quebec’s resources while making sure Canada follows its international obligations. The majority of irregular crossings currently take place in the province.
“These tents are part of the government of Canada’s contingency planning,” Goodale said. ”While they cannot predict what volumes will come next, we are prepared to manage an increase in asylum seekers in an orderly way.”
On Friday, the Trump administration ended a program granting temporary protected status for Hondurans in the U.S. A similar revocation of status for Haitians and El Salvadorans is blamed for triggering last year’s influx of border crossers. The decision gives more than 57,000 Hondurans with temporary protected status a year and a half to leave the U.S. or obtain legal residency in other ways.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday the government would use the intervening time to target American communities, including Miami and southern California, with an ongoing message that Canada may be compassionate and welcoming, but it still has a rules-based immigration system.
“Just because you come to Canada irregularly does not give you a free pass to this country,” he said.
As Trump has taken aim at the protected status of various communities in the U.S., he and his supporters have said the protections were never meant to be permanent.
However many of the migrants have put down roots in the U.S. That includes giving birth to children who have no knowledge of their parents’ homeland.
“We work hard and do not have criminal records. I own a home and business with my family and every year I pay my taxes,” Orlando Lopez, a Honduran living in Miami, said in a statement.
Last August, dozens of tents were set up at the Lacolle crossing, but many were dismantled when numbers of border crossers slowed. Those tents were provided by the Department of National Defence, rather than the private sector supplier the border agency is now seeking out.
Goodale says the structures that remain are not enough to meet the demand.
“There is currently limited bed capacity on-site, which is hard for children if they need to remain more than a day.”
The minister also noted that while the crossing typically processes asylum claimants within a day, a large influx could spell longer processing times. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada equipped the official port of entry with a mobile processing unit last fall to help speed up intake.
About 2,500 asylum seekers crossed into Canada from the U.S. in April, Mike MacDonald, a senior Immigration Department official, told the House of Commons immigration committee on Thursday.
Raisa Patel and Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press