Sep 18, 2003

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U.S. devalues Canadian citizenship

This annoying type of unilateral action by the U.S. de facto defines a two-tier class of Canadian citizens at the border.

During the past two years Canada's immigration policies have been
subjected to a series of sweeping popular critiques including those of journalists Diane Francis and Daniel Stoffman, among many.

As a consequence of these and other complaints, Canada put a new and more stringent set of immigrant entry conditions into place in June 2002. The short-run effects of these conditions have been dramatic. Recent statistics indicate that skilled immigrant applications to Canada have declined by 40 per cent. Other immigrants mired in the red tape of changing regulations have filed a class-action suit. It remains to be seen if stringent overseas screening efforts will prove effective in improving the economic prospects of immigrants in Canada.

However, in spite of these draconian measures, even more important changes appear much closer to home, namely at the Canada-United States border. The harmonization of visa regulations and the unilateral actions of the U.S. authorities at the border have had dramatic effects on the definition of Canadian citizenship and particularly of a refugee.

For example, the U.S. has imposed visa requirements on some Canadian citizens crossing the border because their place of birth is neither Canada nor a country in a select third group. More invidious is the U.S. treatment of Canadians who hold dual citizenship when their country of birth is considered a terrorist haven by the U.S. Recently, a Syrian-born Canadian returning to Canada via New York was detained by U.S. authorities and sent to Syria to be imprisoned. This annoying type of unilateral action by the U.S. devalues Canadian citizenship, and de facto defines a two-tier class of Canadian citizens at the border.

The U.S. redefinition of Canadian citizenship has powerful implications for Canada's resident foreign-born population. To assess a Canadian's claim to Canadian citizenship, U.S. border officials ask three questions based on information on the Canadian passport: where were you born? what countries have you resided in lately? and, are you a dual national?

A Canadian-born citizen who last resided in Surrey has more validity for the U.S. than a Canadian and German citizen born in Pakistan and entering from Syria. This redefinition undermines one key element of immigration integration into Canada, namely rapid ascension to Canadian citizenship without the need to denounce home citizenship.
When queried about Canadian reaction to U.S. ethnic profiling at the border, Prime Minister Chretien responded to a worried immigrant by stating, “become a Canadian citizen, then we will help you.” One can see the futility of that declaration.

However, there is a more serious problem beyond citizenship definitions. Canada's initiative to harmonize refugee policies at the border is especially disconcerting since it can prevent the entry of refugees with valid claims under Canadian refugee regulations. Under the mutually agreed upon safe third country agreement refugees seeking asylum in Canada and transiting in the U.S. must make a claim in the U.S. for refugee status.

This, of course, violates the first principle of any sound asylum policy since refugees cannot choose the country in which to first plead their case. This lack of choice is no trivial matter to potential refugees, since Canada's definition of a refugee is much more humanitarian than that of the U.S.

For example, in Canada evidence of forced abortion under China's one-child policy is sufficient to validate a refugee claim from a Chinese woman. Moreover, Canadian inland refugee determination procedures are conducted under an open administrative review board with a refugee lawyer present. Under the safe third country agreement this review would be made in some cases by a U.S border guard.

But why would Canada, a traditionally open country, endorse this safe third country agreement? History provides us with some hints, as does an appreciation of the political and economic importance of the border in the post-9/11 era under NAFTA.

In the early 1990s Canada recognized the existence of the Buffalo shuffle. This term described refugees who made repeated and unsuccessful claims at Buffalo, in the U.S., and then at Niagara, in Canada, and then repeated this process leading to a continuous stateless cycle. This serious management problem undermined Canada's refugee determination policy.

Canada turned to the European Union for advice, as it was experiencing a much more dramatic case of the border shuffle. Given virtual free mobility between most European Union member states, potential immigrants there did not make their claim in their initial country of landing, but in the one that appeared to have the most generous provisions.

If rejected, these refugees moved on and applied elsewhere, and, if successful, then moved to their country of first choice. Given this situation the European Union adopted a safe third country rule as a compromise between accepting no refugees at all and letting refugees shuffle: refugee claims had to be made in the first country entered, and, if unsuccessful, applicants had to leave the European Union. This policy met with little opposition in Europe where immigrants were not sought, but a semblance of humanitarian principles had to be maintained.

Canada took the European initiative and attempted to get a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. to implement a safe third country concept in North America. These negotiations failed since the U.S. did not want to cede any aspect of its refugee-determination process to Canadians.

This could arise in the rare case where U.S.-bound Cuban refugees would first land in Canada, and be rejected, since Canada does not recognize Cuba as a refugee-producing state. Of course the irony arises a decade later when U.S. officials propose to implement the safe third country concept while some Canadians feel that the agreement threatens their sovereignty.

But how did a common ground emerge so that the two countries can now agree on the safe third country principle? Since security is a trump card for the U.S., a gain in security more than offsets a small loss in U.S. sovereignty. Under the safe third country agreement, the U.S. gain is two fold: refugee claimants will no longer be shuffled between two countries, and the U.S. de facto is able to reject Canada-bound refugees who first appear on their soil. Then why would Canada sign the agreement? First, Canada is motivated by the need to end the Buffalo shuffle. Second, Canada must trade off some sovereignty at the border for strategic reasons, i.e., for continued access to the U.S. market in the NAFTA context.

There are many other border issues surrounding varying definitions of citizenship and refugee status, such as treatment of immigrant smugglers and the validity of the NAFTA visa. It is the aim of a conference sponsored by the research on immigration and integration in the metropolis (RIIM) centre of excellence to debate these issues in an open forum with Canadian and U.S. scholars and policy makers at the Morris J. Wosk centre for dialogue on Sept. 29.

Don DeVoretz is an SFU professor of economics and co-director of RIIM.

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