Visas no substitute for policy

There’s bleak humour in Jean Chretien joining the Queen’s honour roll just as asylum seekers again tug at the nation’s sleeve. Giving problems time to solve themselves was among the former prime minister’s favoured, and often successful, tactics. A chronically dysfunctional refugee review system is one result.

There’s bleak humour in Jean Chretien joining the Queen’s honour roll just as asylum seekers again tug at the nation’s sleeve. Giving problems time to solve themselves was among the former prime minister’s favoured, and often successful, tactics. A chronically dysfunctional refugee review system is one result.

Three majority governments and more than a decade in power were not enough to deconstruct a conundrum that pits this country’s kindest intentions against the desperate tactics of poor people searching for a better life. In that contest, victory belongs to those able to abuse Canadian generosity.

Understanding the problem requires being clear about who those people are and, more significantly, what they are not. They are economic migrants hoping to improve their prospects, not political refugees fearing for their lives. By slipping through border policy fissures, they jump long queues waiting in the world’s worst places. Once landed, they clog a layered bureaucracy with false claims and take advantage of not-today-maybe-tomorrow deportation practices to stay, sometimes forever.

It’s also important, and only fair to Chretien, to grasp the dilemma’s complexity. Canada’s self-image, along with its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, demand openness and access to due process, even if one strains hospitality and the other is too often exploited.

Failure to square that circle is the root cause of this week’s mini-crisis. For want of a better remedy, in the absence of overdue reform, Ottawa is insulting friends and damaging tourism, business and Canada’s international reputation by arbitrarily decreeing that Mexican and Czech visitors must have visas.

Hasty measures are always dubious. What’s certain is Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s decision will discourage legitimate travel; it won’t deter determined migrants.

A glance south reveals the futility of trying to hold back a human tide. Despite high walls, barbed wire and patrols along the Rio Grande, the number of Mexicans now living illegally in the U.S. is roughly equal to the total population of Ontario.

Opportunity is a powerful magnet. It draws to the U.S. Mexicans who do work Americans won’t. It attracts to Canada fugitives from global poverty who can live in relative comfort here waiting for appeals and, ultimately, a knock on the door that may never come.

Kenney is right to recognize that the process is a large part of the problem. Canada is known as a soft touch and a tougher line is useful in changing that message.

Still, Conservatives don’t seem any closer to a fix after three-plus years in office than Liberals were after 13. Kenney’s advice to “stay tuned” for policy changes isn’t reassuring. Giving immigration officials more power to immediately reject claims, a response the British adopted in 2004, or limiting appeals will surely lead to controversy and lengthy Charter challenges.

Equally troubling is the confusion over how the new requirements fit with Canadian foreign policy. Imposing visa restrictions on Mexicans is inconsistent with NAFTA and counter to Ottawa’s strategy of strengthening relations with the Americas. Upsetting the Czechs is an odd way to advance European Union trade talks already strained by hard feelings over the seal ban.

Visas are no better a long-term solution than procrastination. Needed now is a strategy that welcomes legitimate refugees and encourages open borders while demonstrating that those who take advantage of Canada’s warm heart quickly get the cold shoulder.

James Travers is a syndicated Toronto Star political columnist.

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