Fixing the refugee mess

With Liberal support likely, Kenney’s move looks like a winner

Too often, when immigration issues are on the table, new Canadians are discussed as if they form a monolithic group, all uniformly anxious for the system to be as porous as possible when it comes to letting into Canada any who wish to follow them.

Back in the 2008 election campaign, I was reminded that this is far from the case on the occasion of Stéphane Dion announcing the Liberal immigration platform at the Shiang Garden restaurant in Richmond, B.C. The mostly Chinese-Canadian crowd offered only tepid applause that day for Dion’s big-ticket promise of $400 million to unclog the refugee system. But they enthusiastically cheered his pledge—delivered almost as an afterthought—to streamline customs processing for frequent business visitors to Canada.

Dion and his campaign aides far overestimated the crowd’s interest in the plight of refugees, while undervaluing keen interest in the practicalities of business travel, at least among the slice of the ethnic vote represented at that luncheon.

Watching Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney unveil his refugee reforms today, it struck me that he is unlikely to fall prey to that sort of mistaken assumption. Kenney has spent much of his career in federal politics preoccupied with narrowing the Liberals’ longstanding lead over Conservatives when it comes to support among recent immigrants. For years he tirelessly led Tory outreach to those hard-to-get voters—trying to figure out what matters to them—prior to Prime Minister Stephen Harper assigning him, inevitably, the Citizenship and Immigration portfolio in the fall of 2008.

So before Kenney announced his overhaul of the refugee system today, it’s a safe bet he carefully considered how his new rules are likely to be greeted by the diverse urban, visible-minority communities he courts. I suspect he has correctly figured out he can sell most of them on making it harder for phony refugees to clog up the works and easier for genuine ones to to be accepted.

Still, Kenney knows the old system, which has created a backlog of 60,000 waiting for their claims to be heard—not to mention 38,000 rejected asylum-seekers whose “whereabouts are unknown”—has its staunch defenders. Certain immigration lawyers and consultants spring to mind.

“This government is no longer going to allow the enemies of reform and of change, who are absolutely wedded to the dysfunctional status quo, to stand in the way of a fair system that allows faster protection to real victims of persecution,” he said at a news conference today.

The system he’s had it with has proven hopelessly vulnerable to gaming. When a would-be refugee arrives in Canada, it takes 28 days just to get the initial personal information form filled out, often incompletely. Then maybe a year and a half to get the claimant in front of a refugee board hearing. After that, a failed applicant might spend three years appealing all the way up to the Federal Court. And years more can pass before rejected claimants are actually removed from Canada, unless they disappear in the interim.

Kenney proposes a brisker process: eight days of information-gathering on the claimant; a first hearing within 60 days; an appeal, if need be, before a new Refugee Appeal Division within four months; a Federal Court appeal within four months after that; and, finally, a failed claimant sent packing inside a year. (The key change could be that initial rapid information-gathering stage: there’s nothing like it now, so disputed facts and incomplete paperwork often undermine the process from the very outset.)

The NDP pounced on another part of Kenney’s proposal—his plan to draw up a list of democracies with good human rights records and deal a bit more expeditiously with individuals from these “safe countries of origin.” A claimant from one of the listed countries would get the same initial hearing as any other, but no access to the new Refugee Appeal Division, although a final Federal Court appeal would still be possible. Is cutting out one level of review for claimants from countries that don’t typically generate refugees really “dangerous,” as the NDP’s Olivia Chow heatedly charged today?

Liberals don’t seem to think so. MP Maurizio Bevilacqua, the party’s immigration critic, was muted in his reaction. He told Maclean’s he’ll be suggesting that the immigration minister retain the discretion to allow a claimant from a safe country of origin to go to the Refugee Appeal Divison in an exceptional case—a tweak. But Bevilacqua raised no fundamental objections. He’s mainly concerned about whether the $540 million over five years the Tories are allocating to these reforms will be enough to make them happen.

So it’s looking likely the Liberals will vote for the package. Given how controversial refugee issues have always been, passing this legislation without much outcry in a minority House would rank as a feat—testimony, in a government where cabinet ministers often switch chairs too quickly to master their files, to the advantages of having one who served long, intense apprenticeship in the issues now on his desk.

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