Allison Hanes: A year after Roxham Road closed, immigration is more political than ever

Little has changed as a result of barring the irregular border crossing. But one thing that has changed is the political context for Premier François Legault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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It was just over a year ago that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally bowed to public pressure from Quebec and closed Roxham Road, the veritable back door to Canada for some of the world’s most desperate people.

Since 2017, as many as 113,000 migrants used the dirt tract just south of the Parc Safari zoo and amusement park to cross into Quebec from upstate New York, some after months-long, continent-spanning journeys on foot. The Safe Third Country Agreement had long allowed people to claim asylum after traversing the world’s longest undefended border at unofficial checkpoints — although Roxham Road became so heavily travelled and the Canada Border Services Agency so well organized in processing the human tide that it had more or less become a de facto entry point.

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But during U.S. President Joe Biden’s first visit to Canada, he and Trudeau announced changes to the accord — effective just after midnight on March 25, 2023 — that authorized the CBSA to turn back or arrest most of those arriving via Roxham Road.

Premier François Legault greeted the news as a “very nice victory” for Quebec, in response to his efforts to get the federal government to control the border and stem the tide of irregular entries, which were taxing the province’s finances and capacity to care for the arrivals.

Noting that Quebec had received 40,000 asylum seekers via Roxham the previous year, Legault said: “It’s certain that we have just solved a big part of the problem.”

But it turned out to be a short-lived victory for Legault. As many as 65,000 migrants claimed asylum in Quebec in 2023, as people looking to make their way to Canada landed at Montreal’s Trudeau airport instead.

In January, Legault wrote a letter to Trudeau seeking $470 million to cover the costs of welcoming asylum seekers in 2021 and 2022. (Quebec later secured $100 million in funding.) He also warned that Quebec’s public services have been pushed to the “breaking point,” including schools, hospitals and social assistance programs, while Ottawa struggles with a backlog of work permit approvals.

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So little has changed as a result of barring Roxham Road. As humanitarian and refugee aid groups cautioned, the impoverished, displaced and persecuted have continued to seek a new life in Canada, albeit by different, potentially more dangerous, avenues.

The mass global migration that is underway is not a tap that can simply be turned off at will. There are many great forces at play that no governments or nations have been able to stop, no matter how robust or draconian their measures. Despite a wall, U.S. Border Patrol encountered almost 250,000 migrants crossing from Mexico in December 2023 alone.

What has changed is the political context for both Legault and Trudeau.

Legault has long demanded more authority over immigration from Ottawa, making it a theme of his 2022 re-election campaign and giving rise to some unfortunate rhetoric.

There are now 500,000 temporary immigrants in Quebec, of 2.5 million in Canada — a group that includes foreign workers and international students, as well as asylum seekers. While political parties debate the right level of traditional immigration to ensure integration into Quebec society, the commissioner of the French language has warned that the number of newcomers who don’t have a working knowledge of French has tripled in just two years as the number of non-permanent residents has exploded.

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Cue the hand-wringing among commentators already lamenting that the Québécois identity, language and culture are drowning.

As Legault fails to wrench concessions from Trudeau, and with his popularity in free fall, the political pressure is ratcheting up on the premier. Poll-topping Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon is goading Legault into calling a referendum on repatriating more power over immigration to force Ottawa’s hand.

Meanwhile, the federal government has increased family reunification permits as Quebec drags its feet on an aspect of immigration the province does have some control over. This could back Legault even further into a corner.

In January 2017, when then-president Donald Trump was slamming the door on arrivals from certain Middle Eastern and African countries, Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. #WelcomeToCanada.”

Trudeau waxing poetic about this country’s openness was a point of pride for many Canadians at the time. However, it led to a spike in inquiries about immigration possibilities from around the globe. And critics later blamed the tweet for the wave of crossings at Roxham Road, though the U.S. context likely played an even greater role.

Seven years later, the Canadian consensus on immigration has been eroded. It has come to light that the Trudeau government ignored indications that record levels of immigration of all types have contributed to the housing crisis while stretching beleaguered public services.

The Trudeau government is now trying to put the genie back in the bottle by capping the number of international students, imposing visas for visitors from Mexico and planning restrictions on temporary foreign workers — even as Canada and Quebec face labour shortages only immigration can fill.

A year after Roxham Road was shuttered for political reasons, immigration has become more of a wedge than ever.

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