In 2017, the number of asylum claims filed in Canada doubled from the previous year to 50,000. Nearly 20,000 of those asylum claims were made in Quebec, the vast majority at or as a result of Roxham Road. Between January and May, there were just shy of 22,000 asylum claims made in Canada. The trend was started last year by people, notably Haitians, who feared that President Trump might deport them, but it has since evolved to include many others, notably Nigerians who appear to have traveled to the U.S. for the purpose of reaching Roxham Road.
According to Canadian and international law, Canada has to give a full hearing to anyone on Canadian soil who claims they are a refugee fleeing persecution. If their refugee claim is accepted, Canada will give them permanent residency and eventually citizenship. However, the process of determining whether someone is or is not a refugee can take years. While their cases are being adjudicated, Canada releases most border-crossers into the population, giving them social assistance and free medical care and allowing them to work, legally.
It’s a sensible and humane system, but it risks breaking down if too many people use it. It also creates perverse incentives. Lengthy delays in processing claims, combined with the ease of entering the asylum system, means a refugee claim made on Canadian soil is a backdoor way for an economic migrant to spend a few years, possibly many years, legally working in Canada.
Canada’s immigration consensus isn’t yet broken, but thanks to Roxham Road, it’s visibly fraying. This spring, the Quebec government, which had at one point housed arrivals in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, said that it could not support any more refugee claimants, and asked the federal government to start sending some of them elsewhere. In Toronto, where some arrivals are being accommodated in college dorms that have to be made ready for students in a few weeks, and where the city threatened to close some community centers to make them available for asylum seekers, the mayor has been begging the federal government for more money. And last week, the Ontario premier, Doug Ford, said that “this mess was 100 percent the result of the federal government,” so Trudeau should bear the full responsibility for dealing with it.
Regular immigration to Canada is unobtrusive and orderly, but the crossings at Roxham Road are neither. The phenomenon of people just showing up at the border feels to many Canadians like queue jumping. It also leaves the impression that the immigration system is out of control. In a country that makes a constitutional motto of “peace, order, and good government,” and that jokes about waiting politely in line being a core Canadian value, things that look like disorder or lawlessness tend to upset folks.
Mixed in with Canada’s long history of welcoming immigration policy is another long history: that of Canadians freaking out over small numbers of people trying to make an end run around the border walls. For example, over a period of 10 months in 2009 and 2010, two ships carrying a total of 568 refugee claimants from Sri Lanka were intercepted off the coast of British Columbia. The number of passengers was lower than the number of people who legally immigrate to Canada every day. Yet the arrival of the ships had the government, the media, and a good chunk of the population in an uproar.