Emmanuel Dubourg says he has spent the past 24 hours in Miami doing media interviews, meeting with Haitian community groups and visiting churches to deliver a message: there is no "free pass" for asylum-seekers crossing into Canada illegally.
Dubourg, a Liberal member of Parliament who represents the Montreal-area riding of Bourassa, has been in the southern Florida city since Wednesday in an attempt to dispel immigration myths that have driven thousands of Haitians to cross illegally into Quebec from its border with New York.
He was sent by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as part of the federal government's latest efforts to curb the flow of migrants fleeing the U.S. in the months since President Donald Trump's inauguration.
"This was all done with the objective of casting our message as widely as possible and setting the record straight," Dubourg told reporters in Canada from via conference call from Miami on Friday.
"Some social media message has been circulated suggesting that the Canadian government gives asylum-seekers a free pass into Canada. This is absolutely false and is leading to misguided decisions."
Haitians in the U.S. agree to help
Dubourg, who immigrated from Haiti to Canada in 1974, has been leveraging his skills in Creole and knowledge of Haitian culture to connect with Haitians south of the border who may be considering an illegal run to Canada. Roughly 7,000 people have crossed into Quebec through unofficial checkpoints over last six weeks, many of whom are Haitian, the province has confirmed.
He said the Haitian community in Miami has agreed to help tackle misinformation about Canada's immigration system — to warn Haitians throughout the U.S. and in Haiti "do not try to sell everything, to quit your job and take your children with you to cross the border irregularly." At least 50 per cent of asylum claims from Haitians were rejected by Canada in 2016, he added.
"I can tell you that I was well received by them and they are now informed in the immigration system, and how also they can help our brothers and sisters to come to Canada in a legal fashion," he told National Observer. "It’s true that Canada is an open country, but we have a rigorous immigration system that is robust and well-functioning.”
There are roughly 200,000 Haitians living in Miami. Other rumours circulating among them, Dubourg explained, include a "special agreement" struck between Canada and Haiti that creates a quicker path to residency, and there are U.S. government officials willing to tell Haitians in America how they can cross illegally into Canada. Dubourg said many of these falsehoods are spread via social media, but could not provide further details.
Canada grappling with a migration crisis
More than 10,000 asylum-seekers have crossed into Canada from the U.S. since the beginning of 2017, including 3,880 in August alone, according to the RCMP and Canadian Border Services Agency. The spike has strained public resources as of late and tested traditionally widespread support for Canada's immigration system, prompting both protests and counter-protests in Quebec City over the topic of immigration.
Nearly 60,000 Haitians currently live in the U.S. with a special protected status given to Haiti following a major earthquake in 2010 that left more than 300,000 people dead. With many expecting Trump to end this special program in January, thousands of them have been flocking to Canada for protection.
A union representing Canada customs and border agents has described the situation as a crisis. Conservative critics have also pointed the finger of blame at Trudeau, who tweeted a warm welcome message to migrants in January after Trump announced a travel ban that would affect many U.S. residents.
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017
Ottawa has now launched a new intergovernmental task force to assess the crisis last week. The group includes Dubourg, federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Quebec Immigration minister Kathleen Weil, and Ontario Immigration Minister Laura Albanese. Trudeau has since insisted his government is well-equipped to handle the migration surge, and made it clear that there is no advantage to crossing into Canada illegally.
Hundreds of migrants are currently residing in tents at the Lacolle border crossing in Quebec as processing of their claims begins. Earlier this week, the Quebec government announced that some 4,000 of them will begin receiving welfare cheques next week, and the province is examining education options for up to 2,300 children living in temporary camps.
Upon his return to Canada, Dubourg said he will brief the federal government and this task force on what he has learned in Florida, including how and why misinformation is circulating within Haitian communities about Canada's immigration system. He said hopes his message on the risks of crossing into Canada illegally — and the strict claims process migrants will face upon arrival — spreads to other ethnic groups and potential asylum-seekers.
— with files from Clothilde Goujard and The Canadian Press