Samuel Forster: Enough with the Canadian smarm on immigration

The ruling against the Safe Third Country Agreement allowed us to feel really good about ourselves. Is our self-righteousness deserved?

By: Samuel Forster 

When Canada’s Federal Court ruled the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the United States unconstitutional last month, the judgement was considered a grave portent on both sides of the border. 

In America, and especially among progressives there, the ruling was evidence of their own country's terrible fall from its liberal-democratic ideals. "The world is realizing the U.S. is no longer committed to basic standards of decency," noted a Washington Post editorial. And, indeed, the Canadian ruling suggested that this perception was sound. 

The STCA requires that asylum seekers apply for refugee status in the first place they land — which had the effect of ensuring that most refugees made their claims in America, rather than Canada.

But according to Justice Ann Marie McDonald, America's treatment of those claimants was “entirely outside the norms accepted in our free and democratic society," thus invalidating the agreement, and unavoidably signalling that Canada no longer feels that the U.S. meets the standard of a functional, safe liberal-democracy.

For Canadians, this bolstered long-standing myths about our values and self conception as a more open society. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted his support of asylum seekers, and met newly arrived Syrian refugees at the airport, he was applauded by a Canadian electorate that saw this in stark contrast to Donald Trump's Muslim Ban, and was flattered by the comparison: We abide by principles of decency and compassion that they do not. We subscribe to notions of fairness and justice that they, quite simply, do not. Whereas their approach is animated by rampant xenophobia and a brutish indifference to suffering, ours reflects a refined solicitude that is unmatched on the world stage. 

But poke at this myth even a little and you’ll see that much of this feeling of moral superiority is unfounded.

As a nation that has only one international border, removed from the developing world in every direction by thousands of miles, Canada is largely insulated from mass migration and its attendant challenges. 

With the exception of sites like Roxham Road, where irregular or illegal entries (the proper term is hotly debated) have become all but officially sanctioned, very few migrants enter into Canada between ports of entry. 

A typical year for the RCMP does not involve, for example, intercepting hundreds of thousands of economic migrants, drug smugglers, gun runners, and sexually trafficked children in the vast wilderness. The imperative for Canadians to “stand on guard for thee” is minimized by the heavy lifting of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. 

America is, in this sense, our shield against the geopolitical chaos of the world. Our kinder, gentler mythos is permitted by the fact that America’s approach on its own southern frontier stops many of the hard cases from ever reaching us in the first place.

The numbers tell the tale. Between January of 2017 and March of 2018, for instance, approximately 28,000 people crossed the border into Canada somewhere other than a normal port of entry. That was by far the most traffic Canada has seen; it overwhelmed our services. Montreal’s Olympic stadium was converted into a refugee centre; the armed forces built tent cities in Ontario. Perhaps most telling, public opinion polling showed a rapid hardening of Canadians’ views on irregular migration; and the Liberals, sensing political danger, got tougher in response. In that same approximate period, 300,000 people were caught entering the United States illegally — and that was considered a good year. The figure was 850,000 in 2019, and over a million as recently as 2006. The scale of these challenges is simply not comparable.

And it’s not just the number of people walking across the border that make for a sobering comparison. Canadians often pride themselves on their response to the Syrian Civil War — a refugee crisis that saw us take in roughly 50,000 asylum seekers. While this was a more substantial response than what was shown by the United States, both in relative and absolute terms, Canada’s supposed magnanimity pales in comparison to that of other global actors. Austria, with a population of 9 million and an area smaller than Newfoundland, received roughly the same as us. Sweden, another nation much smaller than ours, received more than twice what we did. Germany’s figure exceeds ours by more than an order of magnitude. The country straining the most to manage the refugee crisis is Turkey — it's home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees. 

Or consider this fact; Canada utilizes a points-based approach to immigration that assesses applicants based on age, fluency in French or English, work experience, ability to prearrange employment, formal education, and cultural adaptability. This is a system that is actually admired by many American conservatives. 

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The reactionary conservative pundit Ann Coulter has, in fact, made this very point.

“You’ve got a lot of catching up to do in Canada. Canadian immigration policy, for decades, has been more like what Trump is suggesting, and that is looking at immigration as any other government policy: What’s good for the people who already live there?”

And indeed, Trump himself has claimed that emulating the Canadian model would satisfy the America-First economic objectives of his administration. 

This is not to disregard the legitimate moral and legal misgivings that many have directed at the current American administration's immigration agenda. 

New Trumpian policies were sufficient to “shock the conscience,” according to justice McDonald. Trump’s 2017 travel ban, the disparate treatment of racial minorities in American detention facilities, and the “increasing public hatred expressed toward Muslim and Arab people” constitute just some of the cited motivations for overturning the SCTA. Essentially, the decision maintains that rejecting asylum seekers at the border is inhumane because the American administration of immigration enforcement is grossly incongruous with the moral priorities of the Canadian people.

No reasonable observer denies that much of what’s been happening in America is horrifying. But COVID-19 has exposed a little homegrown hypocrisy, as well. Canadian-American families have been separated by the Canada Border Services Agency, people who are identifiable as American have had their vehicles keyed, and some have even been physically assaulted, all because they are unwelcome aliens. There are politicians in Canada who suggest that drivers with American license plates can avoid harassment by “riding a bike.” 

What would Canadians have to say if Ted Cruz or Mitch McConnell responded to the harassment of Mexican-Americans in a similar manner? 

It's very easy to moralize on the immigration and refugee file when we don't have to live with any of the consequences. 

Samuel Forster is a Canadian-American writer whose work has appeared in Quillette, Arc Digital, Merion West, and elsewhere. He is currently living in Dallas, Texas.

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