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Minister defends STCA amid surge in irregular crossings

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) is “working,” despite the massive increase in migrants using unofficial border crossings last year compared to previous years.

Mendicino told CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos, in an interview airing Sunday, Canadian officials and their American counterparts continue to work together to modernize the agreement. Still, he insists the system is functioning.

“To be clear, that agreement remains in place and it is working,” he said. “The RCMP are doing the job of intercepting those who are coming into the country, which obviously underscores the integrity of our borders and the investments, which are backstopped by the federal government.”

The STCA was first signed 20 years ago, and there have been talks of modernizing it since 2018, with some changes made in 2019. Under the STCA, people seeking refugee status in either Canada or the U.S. must make their claim in the first country they enter.

The loophole that the agreement applies only to official land border crossings means asylum seekers who manage to enter a country via an unofficial crossing — such as Roxham Road along the Quebec-New York border — are not returned.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the number of RCMP interceptions and asylum claims at unofficial border crossings between Canada and the U.S. hit a six-year high in 2022. There was a drastic drop in the numbers as of spring 2020 and throughout 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the border.

Meanwhile, there have been calls to update the agreement since 2018, which Mendicino said he hopes will be accomplished “in the very short term,” though he doesn’t want to be “fastened to a particular timeline.”

Earlier this month, the body of a 44-year-old Montreal man was found near Roxham Road after he attempted to cross there into the United States.

When pressed on why he believes the current agreement is working when the number of people using unofficial crossings has spiked, and a man died trying to use Roxham Road, Mendicino said he didn’t want to “diminish from that tragic situation,” and that “first, our hearts go out to the individual’s family.”

“What I’m talking about are the investments that we put in place to make sure that those individuals who are coming to seek asylum are processed and screened, and that way they can make their claim in Canada, or if they are not eligible to be returned to the United States,” he said. “That is a system that has been in place now for a number of years, and what we are talking about now is modernizing and further strengthening that agreement, which we are continuing to do through dialogue, which has been constructive throughout.”

Official talks around updates to the agreement were not on the agenda earlier this month when the prime minister and other officials headed to Mexico City for the North American Leaders’ Summit, but Mendicino said the STCA was discussed.

Mendicino said Canada and the U.S. have had a “long-standing dialogue” about the STCA apart from the North American Leaders’ Summit, and that “the process continues” as far as discussions around modernizing the agreement.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to land it,” he said. “In the meantime, we’ll continue to make historic investments and work with provincial and territorial partners, so that asylum seekers who have a basis on which to make those claims in Canada are able to do so, but do so in a safe and orderly way.”

“It’s important that we recognize that we have an immigration system that works, and that fosters safe and orderly flow both when it comes to asylum seekers, as well as economic immigrants,” he also said.

Conservative Leader Poilievre Poilievre said this week that the Liberal government should renegotiate the agreement “in order to close Roxham Road,” adding he understands why people try to use it, because the Canadian immigration system is “now so slow and so broken.” He blamed the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada application backlog, and said the prime minister should “renegotiate the deal with the Americans, and speed up the processing of immigration generally.”

With files from writer Tom Yun and CTV’s Question Period senior producer Stephanie Ha

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