Published February 29, 2024

Canada bringing back visa requirements for Mexico to slow asylum claims

Canada bringing back visa requirements for Mexico to slow asylum claims
Canada bringing back visa requirements for Mexico to slow asylum claims

By Sarah Ritchie

New visa requirements Ottawa is imposing on Mexican nationals are meant to curb the number of asylum claims in Canada as well as stem the flow of people crossing into the United States, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said Thursday.

Though the minister emphasized a close relationship with Canada's North American ally, the Mexican government responded curtly, saying it "reserves the right to act in reciprocity."

Quebec Premier François Legault, who reacted favourably to the decision, had been urging Ottawa to reimpose visa requirements as his province reaches what he calls a breaking point. 

Miller said at a news conference early Thursday that Mexican nationals accounted for 17 per cent of all asylum claimants in 2023. 

"Most asylum claims from Mexico are either rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada or withdrawn or abandoned by the applicant, and so a change was needed," he said. 

The vast majority of the 25,236 asylum claims received by the Immigration and Refugee Board from Mexico last year have not been decided.

Of the decided cases, 2,894 were accepted — about 40 per cent — and 2,424 were rejected. Another 560 people abandoned their claims and 1,240 withdrew. 

The board said more than 28,000 asylum claims from Mexico were still pending as of the end of December, including claims made in previous years.

Miller said another key concern for his government is that some people are travelling to Canada so that they can cross into the United States.

"(The numbers) are nothing compared to what the U.S. is facing with respect to their southern border — in fact, they are probably rounding errors. But they are significant and they've increased dramatically in the last year or two," he said.

In a statement released on its website, Mexico's Foreign Affairs Ministry said it "regrets this decision and believes that there were other options available before putting this measure in place." 

"Mexico has sent two high-level missions to Canada in recent weeks to reiterate the importance of protecting people who are victims of fraud, trafficking, smuggling and disinformation," the statement said, adding that the country could take reciprocal action. 

Human Rights Watch says rates of violence in Mexico have reached historic highs in recent years. It's also one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists and human-rights defenders, the organization says. 

Canada only grants asylum to people it believes cannot safely live in their home country.

Legault said he's pleased with the decision, but Ottawa must go further to address the growing number of temporary residents and asylum seekers in the province, which he said are putting a strain on health care and housing.

"What do we do with the 528,000 temporary immigrants and 160,000 asylum seekers that we currently have?" he said, adding he will be meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ask for people to be redistributed to other provinces. 

Miller cautioned against blaming asylum seekers for the housing crisis, saying it's "unhealthy" to link the two issues.

"Affordability has struck everyone, everywhere," he said, and responsible governments must find ways to house people who "are more often than not in desperate situations."

Ottawa lifted the visa requirement for Mexican visitors in 2016. 

That year, 23,350 people claimed asylum in Canada from all countries around the world. That rose to 137,947 people in 2023.

Miller suggested that spike in claims, particularly illegitimate claims that "don't even have the prospect of succeeding," have put pressure on the Immigration and Refugee Board and added to its backlog of cases. 

Noting that people have a right to claim asylum in Canada, Miller said the government has a duty to make changes when faced with what he called a low success rate in claims from Mexico.

Craig Damien Smith, a research affiliate with York University's centre for refugee studies, said "the other side of the coin that we're choosing not to focus on" is the acceptance rate represents thousands of people fleeing violence, gangs and corruption.

He urged the federal government to set up safe pathways for people to claim refugee status from Mexico. 

"With the U.S. border in the state that it's in right now and it being more and more difficult to claim asylum in the U.S., people in Mexico don't have elsewhere to go," he said.

The changes take effect as of 11:30 p.m. ET Thursday in an effort to ensure people don't "game the system," Miller said. 

An estimated 60 per cent of people travelling from Mexico will not actually need a visa under the new rules.

Mexican citizens flying to Canada can apply for an electronic travel authorization if they have held a Canadian visa within the last decade or if they have a valid U.S. visa.

Any electronic travel authorizations that had been issued before Thursday evening are invalid unless the person also has a valid Canadian work or study permit. 

People travelling to Canada without a work or study permit must reapply for authorization or apply for a visitor visa. 

Those who are already in Canada on a work or study permit are allowed to stay based on the conditions of that permit, and people who are already in the country with an electronic travel authorization can stay as long as they are authorized. 

The government said the process for applying for work and study permits will not change.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2024.

Banner image: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller waits to appear before the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, Wednesday, February 28, 2024 in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

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