Biden and Trudeau’s immigration deal makes it easier for both countries to turn away asylum seekers

Trudeau (left) and Biden (right) are seated in front of a large blue banner with the words North American Leaders Summit written in white. Biden is seated next to an American flag. Trudeau is seated next to a Canadian flag.
US President Joe Biden meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Mexico City, on January 10, 2023, during the North American Leaders’ Summit. The two are meeting again this week. | Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

It’s the latest move by the Biden administration to take a harsher approach on the issue.

In his first state visit to Canada since taking office, President Joe Biden is expected to announce an immigration deal with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that enables both countries to turn away unauthorized asylum seekers.

This deal, which was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, closes a loophole in the two countries’ policies and is the latest in a series of moves underscoring the Biden administration’s harsher approach toward those seeking asylum. Previously, a 2004 agreement allowed both countries to turn away asylum seekers at official ports of entry but did not address unofficial entry points. That’s led to a surge in activity at unofficial border crossings, like Roxham Road in New York.

Under this new agreement, Canada will be able to send unauthorized asylum seekers who are apprehended within 14 days of crossing the border back to the US, with the US able to similarly send asylum seekers back to Canada in that time frame. As part of the deal, Canada is also poised to announce a program that will take in 15,000 migrants from the western hemisphere as people continue to flee countries in Central America for humanitarian reasons. That’s a small fraction of the asylum seekers expected this year; Canada saw nearly 10,000 asylum claims and border apprehensions in the first two months of 2023.

The agreement comes as unauthorized crossings of the US’ northern border have increased in both directions. According to NBC News, unauthorized border crossings from Canada into the US are at “historically high” levels, though still significantly lower than the number taking place at the southern border. Between October 1 and December 31, 2022, apprehensions in one section of the US-Canada border increased to 1,146 from 136 in 2021. In some cases, migrants from Mexico and Central American countries have gone to Canada first in an attempt to enter the US at the northern border.

Unauthorized crossings from the US into Canada have also gone up, with roughly 40,000 people entering the country in 2022, almost twice the number of crossings in 2019, per the New York Times. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement the two previously signed, asylum seekers are required to file in the first country they arrive in whether that’s the US or Canada. The legality of that agreement is currently before Canada’s Supreme Court.

The new deal between Biden and Trudeau underscores a tougher stance on immigration from both leaders, who’ve faced pressure from conservatives to address the issue of unauthorized migration. This deal also marks the Biden administration’s latest move to take a more punitive approach to asylum seekers amid a surge in migrants from Central America last year.

“It builds on ongoing efforts by the Biden administration to roll back protections for asylum seekers, most recently with the proposed asylum ban rule that would prevent many seeking protection from persecution from finding safety,” says Sabrineh Ardalan, the director of Harvard Law’s Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program.

This deal underscores the administration’s harsher approach to immigration

This agreement follows other restrictions the Biden administration has imposed on asylum seekers. As one source told the Los Angeles Times, a goal of the policy is to “reduce incentives” for unauthorized crossings of the northern border between the two countries.

Broadly, the administration has sought to curb unauthorized entry into the US while also trying to provide an avenue for legal immigration for certain asylum seekers, something this deal tries to do as well. As NPR’s Joel Rose reported, the administration rolled out a “carrot and stick” approach targeting migration at the southern border in February:

The new measures include a legal pathway for up to 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela — if they qualify. At the same time, the administration announced it would begin to quickly expel migrants from those four countries under the pandemic restrictions known as Title 42, if they crossed illegally.

The administration’s February announcement also included a new restriction that’s prompted swift blowback from immigration activists for how punitive it is. Because Title 42, which allowed rapid expulsion based on the Covid-19 public health emergency, is set to expire in May, the administration will soon lose its most efficient tool for getting rid of asylum seekers.

To offset that loss, as Vox’s Nicole Narea explained, a new rule that mirrors a Trump administration proposal would require migrants to either set up an appointment via a government app in order to enter at an official border crossing, or prove they had already been denied asylum in Mexico or a third country they’d traveled through.

That proposal has been roundly condemned by immigration activists who’ve described it as dangerous for asylum seekers, who’d likely have to deal with long waits in their home countries as they seek approval — if they are able to access the smartphone app at all. Beyond questions about reliable internet access, the app has been criticized as being riddled with technical issues. The rule may also ultimately be struck down in court: Trump was never able to institute his version of the rule due to legal losses.

The White House has dismissed its critics and questions around whether its efforts have successfully reduced unauthorized crossings — a claim Republicans loudly dispute — citing a major decline in apprehensions at the southern border in January 2023 compared to December 2022. The Canadian agreement, ultimately, is the administration’s latest move to reduce the number of asylum seekers attempting to cross into the US without authorization.

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