U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans for “extreme vetting” of migrants may seem a stark contrast to Ottawa’s “openness” approach, but the two countries’ systems are more closely aligned than many people would like to believe.
Trump’s stance on immigrants and refugees cannot be more different from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s. That contradiction was on full display at their joint news conference at the White House after the two leaders’ recent first meeting in Washington.
“We cannot let the wrong people in and I won’t,” Trump told to reporters, vowing a program of “extreme vetting” for migrants. “It’s much more than toughness. It’s a stance of common sense.”
Trudeau added, “We continue to pursue our policies of openness towards immigration and refugees without compromising security.”
Despite the general impression that Canada has more tolerant and lax border security than its neighbour to the south, experts on both sides of the border say the countries have similar security screening processes to keep suspected terrorists and criminals out.
“We’ve had a very close partnership with Canada. Canadians are our trusted counterparts. Obviously there’s a tremendous amount of information-sharing between our intelligence and law enforcement services,” said John Sandweg, former acting general counsel to the Department of Homeland Security and former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I have never had a sense that there are any concerns about the quality of the Canadian screening. Certainly, there’s a sense in the U.S. that Canada is more open and welcoming than the U.S., but not in a way that compromised security or adopted lesser standards from the security perspective.”
In January, Trump created an international uproar when he signed the executive order to suspend America’s refugee program and immigration to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — out of terrorism concerns. The moves have been blocked by U.S. courts.
Sandweg said the U.S. already has a thorough screening system, especially for refugees, with multi-layered interviews, biographical information and biometrics matching, as well as multiple checks against databases and watchlists run by different intelligence and enforcement agencies.
The U.S. State Department, Homeland Security, National Security Directorate, National Counterterrorism Centre, FBI, Department of Defense, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are all involved in the process, which includes at least three interviews, three fingerprint screenings and three background checks.
“I have no idea how you can enhance the vetting system (more) than it already is. It is run against the entire U.S. holdings. It is not just looking for just name matches. It is also looking for links and association of friends and family members to addresses and telephone numbers, any sort of matches that might raise suspicion,” said Sandweg.
“The officers are exceptionally versed in the conflict areas, in the history and culture. They are very skilled in terms of ferreting out people’s stories. Things like barring someone from the country could sound appealing to the public but I don’t think it is a real improvement in any way.”
Peter Showler, former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, pointed out that none of the 19 terrorists in the attacks on the U.S. on September 11 were refugees and none were from the seven countries included in Trump’s travel ban. In European terror attacks, including those in Paris and Brussels, most were either born or raised in Europe, and many were of Moroccan descent.
Showler said Republican politicians and media in the U.S. like to paint Canada as “the weak link” in the North America’s security parameters and blame Ottawa for lax border enforcement.
“It is all fear-mongering nonsense,” said Showler, who recently worked as a consultant in Beirut for the United Nations Refugee Agency. “In Europe, those involved in the attacks were second-, third-generation immigrants who were petty criminals, disengaged in the host country and converted to be terrorists. It is so much easier to find a scapegoat than to look at the real security issues. It is easy to dump on the refugees.”
Toronto immigration lawyer Robin Seligman said the U.S. and Canada are much more aligned in their border enforcement since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on America.
Both countries have adopted similar measures, including the use of biometrics technology, to screen overseas travellers before they come to North America. In Canada, the global case management system has been in place for years to allow authorities to access migrants or visitors records for such things as criminality and personal details.
The U.S. and Canada systematically check the others’ visa and immigration databases for immigration and border related purposes, including visa and refugee resettlement applications, for third country nationals, said Immigration Canada spokesperson Nancy Caron.
In 2013, the bilateral information sharing based on a biographic match (name, date of birth and passport number) was implemented. The biometric-based information sharing began in 2015, which helps facilitate legitimate travellers and protect against identity fraud.
“The impression of us being lax in security is incorrect. Officials here know ahead of time if the person trying to come in ever had a deportation order or was a criminal,” Seligman said.
“Trump’s extreme vetting rhetoric is just for public consumption. It is not backed up by any substance. The hysteria is unjustified. Canada is doing a good job at vetting.”
How refugees get to Canada
Those destined for resettlement from camps overseas are first screened by the United Nations Refugee Agency, whose “refugee status determination” process includes detailed interviews, and biometric and anti-fraud measures such iris scanning. The registration data is then entered into a global system. War criminals are flagged.
The refugees are then triaged and about 1 per cent of them are selected for resettlement by countries like Canada and the U.S. The most vulnerable individuals such as women, children, the elderly and sick are given priority. The others will remain in their initial host country, with the expectation that they would be repatriated to their homeland when the circumstances change.
Canadian visa officers then interview the candidates, identify any inconsistencies in their stories, collect their biographical information and biometric data such as fingerprints and digital photos, and run their names through databases of the Canada Border Services Agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, RCMP and Interpol.
Upon arrival at the port of entry, the border agency again checks the identity of the new arrivals as the last gatekeeper. Enforcement officials retain the right to turn away travellers based on suspicions about their identity or documents.
Those refugees who make it to Canada on their own and then make inland asylum claims don’t have to go through the United Nations screening, but they must still undergo all the checks and clearances to be considered admissible to Canada before they are scheduled for an asylum hearing by the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada
How refugees get to the U.S.
The same screening by the United Nations Refugee Agency applies to refugees destined for resettlement from camps. Candidates referred to the U.S. are interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security, which looks for fraud and considers credibility. Officers also verify the refugee’s biographical information, take fingerprints, and gather details on the individual’s history, refugee experience and other information. The officers then decide if the person qualifies for refugee status under U.S. law.
Multiple, detailed security checks are carried out by the State Department and Homeland Security based on the refugee’s information, comparing biometrics, personal data, and the refugee’s application against U.S. government databases and terrorism watchlists from security, counterterrorism, military and intelligence agencies. The process includes three background checks and three fingerprint screenings.
Cases are then reviewed at U.S. immigration headquarters, while some are referred for additional assessment before final approvals by Homeland Security.
Refugees must go through a final security check before leaving for the U.S. and upon arrival at an American airport.
Asylum seekers inside the U.S. must file their asylum claims within one year of their arrival. They must go through extensive fingerprinting, background and security checks to determine eligibility before their cases are reviewed by asylum officers.
Source: Department of Homeland Security, State Department, Human Rights First
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