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How — and why — Canada and the U.S. kept their border deal secret for a year

One year ago, a major piece of political news was sitting in a courier package being shipped across the continent.

Its contents remained widely unknown until last week — when President Joe Biden visited Ottawa and, together with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, announced an updated Safe Third Country Agreement.

In fact, the deal to change the rules on irregular migration was hatched a year ago — even though the news media, provincial governments and almost all federal politicians knew nothing about it.

Here’s how it happened.

Almost a year ago to the day, bureaucrats from both countries finished negotiating an expanded Safe Third Country Agreement in response to years of Canadian demands.

Officials had been cutting back on travel due to the pandemic. They relied on courier services to ship the agreement between capitals.

The new deal was signed in Ottawa by Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on March 29, 2022, and in Washington on April 15 by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

A woman and her child look longingly towards something.
Pamela Haiala, originally from Congo, looks towards Canada with her son as they wait to cross at Roxham Road, an illegal crossing point from New York State to Quebec in Champlain, New York, on March 24, 2023. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Irregular cross-border migration had become a top political issue in both countries — particularly in Quebec, home of the irregular crossing at Roxham Road. The Trudeau Liberals had been taking a drubbing over the issue in Quebec, a province critical to their re-election chances.

Still, nobody talked for an entire year. The agreement’s existence was withheld even from provincial governments.

“We were kept completely in the dark,” said one provincial official. Quebec’s immigration minister found out a few minutes before the news first appeared in the media last Thursday.

Government officials kept the agreement under wraps until the official announcement because they were worried about triggering a stampede at the border.

News of the year-old agreement’s existence was first reported Friday morning by an eagle-eyed immigration expert in Washington.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick was poring over new U.S. federal regulations that will implement the agreement. He tweeted what he found, calling it stunning.

“I was just surprised,” Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, told CBC News. “Like everyone else, I had seen extensive reports that this was not a done deal.”

That’s what officials were telling the media. But what they were fretting about was not the deal itself — that part was over.

The new Safe Third Country Agreement allows both countries to turn back migrants who are looking to make asylum claims at unofficial points of entry such as Roxham Road.

For months after the deal was signed, however, officials in Canada and the U.S. were not certain how soon they could apply it.

U.S. officials told their Canadian counterparts last year that this agreement, like any international agreement, required consultations with multiple U.S. agencies.

How ‘two years plus’ turned into one

They told the Canadians it usually takes 18 to 36 months — which would mean consultations would end sometime between late 2023 and spring of 2025.

“My recollection is they said over two years. Two years plus,” Canada’s Ambassador to Washington Kirsten Hillman told CBC News.

Then came the haggling over the timing. The Canadians kept pleading for faster implementation.

“We had a very vigorous discussion about timelines,” Hillman said.

Before the United States government can implement an international agreement, it has to hear from affected agencies on the feasibility of the pact and whether it respects existing laws.

That required assessments from the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

To be fair, the Americans had their hands full.

Several people are huddled near a bridge at dawn, some gathering around a campfire.
Immigrants warm themselves at a fire at dawn after spending the night outside the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Compared to the wave of movement at the southern U.S. border last year — with over 2 million people entering the United States — the tens of thousands crossing into Canada at Roxham Road barely constituted a statistical ripple. And the Office of Management and Budget already had a lot on its plate.

“This wasn’t the only rodeo in town,” said one U.S. official.

That official said the U.S. was determined not to cut corners. Reichlin-Melnick agreed that thoroughness is critical if new regulations are going to hold up in court.

“The regulatory process is famously slow,” he said. “It requires having all your ducks in a row before you can pull the trigger.”

Eventually, the Canadians were told it could happen faster, within 18 months. Then it was 14 months — this May.

The Biden factor

Biden, meanwhile, was planning an official visit to Canada in March.

The Canadians told their U.S. counterparts that this was the No. 1 source of media interest in Biden’s visit — and warned that if Biden left town with irregular migration still unaddressed, it would loom over his trip.

The president’s visit kicked talks into overdrive. The U.S. official said very senior administration people — the kind who might normally be reachable every few weeks — were suddenly available within hours.

A Canadian official said this underscores a broader point about the value of leaders’ meetings and how they kick the machinery of government into gear: “It isn’t just speeches and warm feelings.”

“[The Biden visit] absolutely had an impact,” Hillman said.

A turning point came earlier this month. The U.S. ambassador to Canada had publicly pushed for a broader approach on resettling migrants, one that isn’t focused solely on Roxham Road.

Fraser agreed. He went to Washington and declared his interest in dealing with the root causes driving a historic migration surge.

He got a phone call from his U.S. counterpart, Mayorkas. Several people in the Canadian government saluted what they called the secretary’s constructive attitude throughout the talks.

Canada makes an offer

Meanwhile, senior officials at the White House National Security Council — the people normally worried about Ukraine and Taiwan — were working with Canadian colleagues to hammer out a communique for Biden’s visit to Ottawa.

Mayorkas called Fraser on March 16. One Canadian official said he asked what Canada could do to help alleviate the pressure at the Americans’ southern border.

Canada offered to take in 15,000 more migrants through legal pathways.

Things suddenly started moving quickly. One U.S. official said that, days before the visit, people started thinking it could happen while Biden was in Canada.

“We knew a couple of weeks ago that we were in the ballpark,” said the U.S. official. “Dominoes kept falling in the right direction.”

A man in a sports jacket surrounded by hands holding up microphones, recorders and phones.
Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser speaks to the media on January 24, 2023. Sources tell CBC News that Canada’s offer to take in 15,000 more migrants through legal pathways helped Ottawa reach a deal with Washington. (Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

It was only a few days before the Biden visit that the sides started feeling confident that an announcement could happen while the president was in Ottawa.

But they weren’t sure. One Canadian was eagerly awaiting the Thursday night release of U.S. federal regulations to be published the next day.

Others said they only started feeling relief when it became clear U.S. officials were talking about the agreement publicly — the details started appearing in U.S. media.

“It was not done,” said one Canadian official. “I thought there was a very real chance that [the visit] could come and go and there would be no deal.”

Hillman said she started feeling confident last Wednesday, the day before Biden’s arrival. She called the episode an example of what can happen when two leaders value each other and work in good faith.

The deal is done. The U.S. interagency assessment is over. Now comes the public assessment. We’ll soon see what effect this has on migration, and whether border-crossers keep seeking out new, more dangerous paths.

Reichlin-Melnick called it the latest example of borders hardening in response to a historic wave of human movement.

He said his preferred policy would be a more efficient, faster U.S. process for adjudicating asylum.

As it stands, he said, it takes at least six months for asylum claimants to get work authorization in the U.S. Their cases drag on for years and they get desperate.

“People find they’re out of money, out of resources, out of options,” he said.

Some start looking to Canada. Now, he said, he fears more of these people will be driven underground.

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