The Douglas border crossing in Canada, near Washington state. (Richard Lam, Canadian Press )
Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — For years, Canada has had one of the most generous immigration policies in the world, welcoming tens of thousands of asylum applicants who claim to be fleeing persecution in their homelands.
But Canada's Conservative government has begun rolling up the welcome mat, stepping up efforts to track down and deport thousands of asylum-seekers whose applications have been denied.
The clampdown is likely to be felt not only across Canada, but in the United States.
Fresh from the revelation that Los Angeles arson suspect Harry Burkhart traveled to the U.S. from Vancouver after losing his nearly three-year bid for refugee status, immigration analysts here warn that the United States could become a new destination for thousands of asylum applicants soon to be pushed out of the pipeline in Canada.
"This is about to become a staging inventory for potential illicit entry into the United States," said Richard Kurland, an immigration policy analyst and attorney in Vancouver.
The most dramatic change is set to take effect at the end of June, with a $540-million "balanced refugee reform" program designed to speed up the asylum review process and start slicing through a backlog of more than 42,000 refugee cases, many of which have been awaiting a decision for years.
The tough new timelines call for asylum applicants to be given a hearing within 90 days, or even less for refugees from some countries, with most appeals heard within an additional 120 days, accompanied by stepped-up enforcement to eject those who fail to prove they would be persecuted if sent home.
U.S. officials say that asylum claimants who are denied refugee protection in Canada will not be automatically turned away at the U.S. border, despite a 2004 agreement between the countries that bars new arrivals in either from entering the other to claim asylum. That pact was put in place to halt the flow of asylum-seekers from the U.S., with its comparatively tough immigration policies, into Canada, where winning asylum had been easier.
The agreement was intended to target new arrivals, not those who had already gone through Canada's asylum process and faced potential deportation, said Mike Milne, spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Seattle, which supervises the western U.S.-Canada border.
"Anybody seeking asylum or claiming a credible fear of persecution gets to articulate their case to an asylum officer. We would take them into detention and they would have the same right as anyone seeking asylum to a hearing," Milne said.
Canadian officials say that's far from clear, and suggest it's more likely that anyone showing up at the U.S. border after failing to win asylum would be quickly returned to Canada, and then deported, under the 2004 agreement.
"Canada and the U.S. have a strong record of cooperation with respect to migrant, refugee and asylum issues and the management of our shared border," said Nancy Caron, spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the nation's chief border enforcement agency.
In any event, U.S. officials say they do not anticipate a massive increase — at least in the number of those seeking to cross the border through legal channels — because they expect that Canada will allow some failed applicants to stay under other exemptions and will deport as many as possible of those deemed not at risk of persecution in their home countries.
But with Canada typically granting about 40% of asylum petitions, the prospect of moving more rapidly through 42,000 pending cases and the more than 124,000 already targeted for deportation, analysts say, is bound to make migration patterns much more unpredictable.
"If you deprive a large number of people of asylum options, they're going to look for the next place to go, in large numbers," Kurland said. "So it is utterly incomprehensible to not figure out that come June-July 2012, when the new rules kick in, there will be a drive to seek sanctuary somewhere else, such as the largest neighbor in North America."
In at least one case, that may already have happened: Officials in both the United States and Canada, citing privacy laws, have refused to say when or how Burkhart and his mother, Dorothee, traveled to the U.S., though it is likely they arrived as tourists with the aid of their German passports.
Most failed asylum applicants in Canada hold passports from nations that would require them to have a visa to enter the U.S. But Kurland said even the Burkharts, though they wouldn't have needed a visa, should have triggered an alert for U.S. immigration authorities after having been rejected for asylum in Canada.
"If they can't catch two obvious refugee claimants who spent years in Canada in the refugee system, how can we trust them to deal with the potential of thousands of folks turned away from Canada because of the new changes?" he said.