TORONTO — Arguing that illegal aliens are abusing Canada's traditionally liberal immigration policy, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called Parliament into an emergency session Tuesday to pass legislation that would seriously restrict the ability of immigrants to win political and religious refugee status.
Mulroney brought Parliament back from its summer recess amid widespread public outrage over the arrival last month of 174 Indian Sikhs who asked for refugee status after being smuggled onto a Nova Scotia beach. In a similar incident last year, 155 Tamils from Sri Lanka asked for shelter after trying to land illegally in Newfoundland.
Under current Canadian law, anyone who makes his or her way into Canada and requests political or religious refugee status is allowed to stay pending a review that takes at least three years even if they enter illegally. On the other hand, applicants for refugee status who seek entry through Canadian offices overseas or at border crossings are normally turned back and made to undergo a lengthy and often unsuccessful review process.
In explaining his decision to bring back the lawmakers to the capital at Ottawa, the prime minister said that Canada "is in the process of being abused" by illegal aliens seeking refugee status, "and in being abused, it is diminished."
Other government spokesmen supported this claim by saying that at current rates, 6,000 people will sneak into the country illegally and claim refugee status this year and that another 24,000 foreigners will try to enter the country openly as religious and political refugees.
If they prove true, these figures represent a 66% increase over 1986 and nearly a fourfold jump over 1985.
In spite of polls that show general support for restricting refugees, opposition political parties, civil liberties groups and major church organizations are fighting the new legislation, although not with much hope since Mulroney's Progressive Conservative party wields an enormous majority and will easily pass the measures before Parliament resumes its recess in about two weeks.
Opponents pointed out that Canada is a country largely settled by immigrants and has been among the most generous in the world in accepting refugees. They also said that the government's use of statistics is alarmist since 90% of would-be refugees are ultimately deported and almost all of those allowed to stay find jobs and do not draw welfare.
Besides arguing that the government has panicked and that the new measures compromise Canada's reputation as a haven for the politically and religiously oppressed, opposition parties charged that Mulroney is following a secret agenda in reconvening Parliament and that the immigration bills are only a smoke screen.
Sergio Marchi, the Liberal Party spokesman for immigration affairs, charged that the real reason for the recall was to pass legislation demanded by the Reagan Administration that would increase patent and production protection for major pharmaceutical firms, most of which are American-owned, against local generic producers.
In spite of such arguments, the immigration situation is clearly worrying the public, particularly in the wake of the two ship incidents. The public outcry generally is aimed at the way such refugees are jumping ahead of those already waiting in line. That is of special concern since current government quotas limit general immigration to about 115,000 this year and apply mostly to family reunification.
The proposed legislation would increase penalties for smugglers of illegal aliens to $380,000 and 10 years in jail from the current $1,500 and two years. It would also make the would-be refugees more liable for lengthy detention and quick expulsion than under existing rules, which generally force authorities to release them within two days and provide a review and appeal process that virtually guarantees residency for three to five years.