U.S. and Canada Reach an Agreement on Turning Away Asylum Seekers

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WASHINGTON — The United States and Canada have reached an agreement that will allow both countries to turn away asylum seekers at their borders at a time when migration has surged across the hemisphere, a U.S. official familiar with the agreement said Thursday.

The deal, which is set to be announced Friday by President Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the two leaders meet in Ottawa, will allow Canada to turn back immigrants at Roxham Road, a popular unofficial crossing point from New York for migrants seeking asylum in Canada.

In exchange, Canada has agreed to provide a new, legal refugee program for 15,000 migrants who are fleeing violence, persecution and economic devastation in South and Central America, the official said, lessening the pressure of illegal crossings into the United States from Mexico.

Mr. Biden was due to arrive in Ottawa on Thursday evening for a 24-hour visit meant to underscore the unity of purpose between the United States and Canada after four years of frosty and even openly hostile exchanges between Mr. Trudeau and former President Donald J. Trump.

But the visit — long delayed from its usual place as an American president’s first trip abroad after taking office — will also expose some difficult issues between the two countries, including the longstanding debate over how to govern the movement of people across the border between them.

The agreement removes one of the relatively few disputes between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Biden ahead of the president’s arrival. The two leaders are also expected to discuss differences over how to stabilize Haiti, and the global race to develop critical minerals needed to make batteries and other technology.

But the accord is likely to further anger advocates for refugees, who are already frustrated with Mr. Biden’s decision to crack down on asylum seekers at the southern border with Mexico.

Mr. Trudeau’s government has been pushing for months to expand a 2004 migration treaty with the United States that limits how many asylum seekers Canada can turn away at its border, sending them back to the United States.

The treaty only allows Canada to turn back a migrant — for example, someone fleeing violence in El Salvador — if the person crosses at an official port of entry between the two countries. Crossings at unofficial points of entry like Roxham Road have surged in the past several years, putting pressure on Mr. Trudeau to limit them.

(Asylum seekers who come from other countries by plane or by ship are not covered by the agreement regardless of where they enter. They are comparatively few in number and, in many cases, are detained until their hearings.)

Until recently, officials in the United States have been resisting a change in the treaty. But people on both sides of the border said conversations have been underway in an attempt to resolve the issue ahead of the daylong summit.

For Mr. Biden, the deal could help lessen the record number of migrants who have surged toward the southern U.S. border through Mexico, driven by political instability across the region and economic changes that have increased poverty.

Mr. Trudeau’s government has welcomed refugees from Syria and elsewhere, and has pledged to increase immigration, earning Canada a reputation as being more open to migrants than many other Western nations. But over the past year, as migration has swelled at Canada’s border, there are signs that the country’s famed hospitality toward migrants may be fraying.

The nearly 40,000 migrants who crossed into the country last year — more than double the number in 2019 — have given Canada a small taste of the challenges that other Western countries have faced in settling refugees and prompted Mr. Trudeau’s opponents to call for him to renegotiate a key agreement on asylum seekers with the United States. The number arriving each month has spiked, with almost 5,000 people arriving in January.

On Friday, Mr. Biden will meet with the younger Mr. Trudeau and deliver an address to the Canadian Parliament, a tradition that was embraced by former Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

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Top American officials in Canada and Washington stressed the personal chemistry between the current leaders. One official, speaking to reporters this week, said the prime minister and president have a “Justin and Joe” relationship that includes each of them having the other “on speed dial” for frequent consultations.

That stems in part from Mr. Biden’s longstanding history with Mr. Trudeau’s family. As a young senator in the early 1970s, Mr. Biden met Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, who was then the country’s prime minister. In a speech six years ago, Mr. Biden praised Pierre Trudeau as a “decent and honorable” man who had raised a successful son.

Officials said Mr. Biden would use the speech to highlight the years of cooperation between the two countries on the war in Ukraine, climate change, confronting China and the global economy. They said he would also talk about the mutual benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Chips Act,  which provide incentives to North American companies for the production of silicon chips, car batteries and steel.

“In the first year of this administration, we focused on rebuilding that bilateral relationship,” John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said. “This visit is about taking stock of what we’ve done, where we are, and what we need to prioritize for the future.”

The spirit of cooperation stands in stark contrast to the tension during Mr. Trump’s administration. In 2018, after attending a Group of 7 summit meeting in Charlevoix, Quebec, Mr. Trump angrily withheld his signature from the leaders’ statement and blasted Mr. Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak.” The relationship between the two men never improved.

Officials on both sides expect far more harmonious meetings during the current visit, which will conclude with a gala dinner at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum.

But the agenda includes some issues on which the two countries disagree.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau are also expected to discuss efforts to help stabilize Haiti after devastating natural disasters and political violence and unrest. The United States has said it believes an international security force is needed, and has urged Canada — which has deep ties to the island — to lead it, something Mr. Trudeau has so far resisted.

American officials declined to say whether Mr. Biden would pressure Mr. Trudeau to accept such a leading role, a decision the Canadian leader has said must be informed by his country’s long history in previous security efforts and the lessons it has learned.

“They will continue to talk about ways we can continue to support, from a humanitarian assistance perspective, the people of Haiti and Haitian national security forces,” Mr. Kirby told reporters at the White House.

“As for, you know, a multinational force or anything like that, I don’t want to get ahead of the conversation here,” he added. “If there’s a place for that, that’s all going to have to be worked out directly with the Haitian government and with the U.N.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau are also expected to touch on longstanding disputes between their industries, such as those over the dairy and timber trade. U.S. technology companies have also urged the Biden administration to push back against a proposed digital services tax in Canada, saying that the bulk of revenues would be collected from American firms.

But experts said the meeting would likely take a wider lens on the trade relationship, focusing on how the countries could align their policies to take on larger challenges like climate change, economic and security threats from China, and the war in Ukraine.

“The competition is not within North America, it is without,” Louise Blais, a former Canadian diplomat, said in a virtual panel discussion Wednesday hosted by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Woodrow Wilson Center Canada Institute.

One issue that would be raised in this context, Ms. Blais said, is that of the critical minerals that power electric vehicle batteries, like lithium, nickel, graphite and cobalt. China dominates the global processing of these important materials, and U.S. officials have begun holding talks with allies about new sourcing arrangements.

Canada has large reserves of critical minerals that could be developed with U.S. investment and assistance, Ms. Blaise said. But the Canadian government will want to make clear to the United States that it is not interested in “just a raw export of those minerals.” Instead, it would argue for developing integrated, continental supply chains for electric vehicles that will reinforce the Canadian manufacturing sector.

“This is what I’d love to see coming out of this meeting, a reaffirmation on the part of the president and the prime minister that we’re going to be developing our industrial policy together and in a comprehensive, integrated way,” Ms. Blaise said.

Some U.S. provisions to offer incentives for the production of high-tech equipment have rankled allies in the European Union, South Korea, Britain and elsewhere who say they unfairly penalize foreign companies.

As a result of an aggressive lobbying push last year, Canadian companies qualify for some of these benefits, such as tax incentives for electric vehicles that source critical minerals from Canada or Mexico. But Canadian officials remain concerned about the potential for large U.S. subsidies and other requirements for using American-made materials to tilt the playing field and draw more manufacturing south.

Instead, some analysts say more focus should be on constructing an integrated North American economy, which could better compete with new threats from China and Russia.

“If we’re not working together in this new world that we face, I think both of our securities and frankly economic well-being is at risk,” Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society, said during the panel discussion Wednesday. “I think both leaders certainly get that, the governments get it, but sometimes interest group politics intervene.”

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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