A few weeks ago, in conversation with the Immigration Minister’s Press Secretary about a mistake I had made in a prior article, he attempted to convince me of the merits of using the term “irregular border crosser” to describe what’s happening at the Canada-U.S border. Apparently the term “illegal immigrant” is not an accurate descriptor of events. So I figured I’d give the term a chance. After all, it’s irregular for language to change before one’s eyes and the mainstream media’s servile acceptance to get with the jargon must mean there’s some merit to the term, right?
What does “irregular” even mean?
Like any good investigation, the best place to start is to define one’s terms. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “irregular” in relation to persons means: “Not conforming or obedient to rule, law, or moral principle; lawless, disorderly.” Its synonyms are “wild”, “wanton”, “unruly”, “rogue” and “unordered”. Now that’s a conundrum, because if “irregular” means not conforming to rules or laws and illegal means “lawless” and “irregular” than we are in fact going in circles.
"The government lost control of the border", immigration lawyer says
When asked for comment on the term, Toronto immigration lawyer Sergio Karas -- himself an immigrant -- told the Post Millennial, "It's a made up term. It means nothing." "In my opinion, the government lost control of the border," he said. “This is all designed to mask the problem. The biggest issue is that the influx continues unabated.” Candice Malcolm, founder of the True North Initiative and Toronto Sun columnist said “it’s all semantics, it’s a distraction from the real issues." “Nobody talks that way. It's not the way people understand the situation," said Malcolm. "It's a technical and bureaucratic term.” According to Karas, the bottom line is that people are taking advantage of the Safe Third Country Agreement which states that asylum claimants must make their claim in the first country they arrive in since both the U.S and Canada are considered safe countries. “Our laws say that we should not accept anybody from a safe third country. The problem is that the Canadian government doesn’t interpret it that way” echoed Malcolm. “We have no ability to enforce it, so we will conveniently pretend it doesn’t exist."
What does a regular asylum seeker look like?
Well let’s look at what exactly is being transgressed in the lamentable case of the “irregular” border crosser. First and foremost, there is an orderly and regular stream asylum seekers usually follow. “Individuals can make an asylum claim in Canada at a port of entry or at an inland CBSA or Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) office. CBSA or IRCC officials will determine if an individual is eligible to make a claim” states the Government of Canada website. Regular asylum claimants go to official ports of entry, “irregular” asylum claimants don’t. "It's an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars," says Karas. “Toronto and Montreal are bearing the brunt of the influx. There’s no affordable housing for them [refugees]. The schools are bursting at the seams with people with no language skills.” "The only solution is to control the intake. Speed it up and prioritize the nature of the claims.”
When does an “irregular” become an illegal?
You see the issue is that it is in fact illegal to cross the border anywhere but at an official point of entry, but if you were to claim asylum immediately after you do so, then you have ventured from the “illegal” into the “irregular” category according to our laws. Genuine and orderly asylum claims do still take place throughout Canada, whether at marine ports, inland offices, or airports. The trouble is that they are being vastly shadowed by those that occur at unofficial ports of entry. According to Karas, “Refugee claimants aren’t only coming through the border but they’re coming through the airports." As an immigration lawyer who doesn't deal with refugees he went on to say "It’s taking very valuable and necessary resources from regular immigration streams. The government has raided various people from the department to help process these claims.” The question is: why don’t asylum seekers simply follow procedure and make a claim at an official port of entry? Because then they run the risk of being turned away immediately after screening by the CBSA. Once in Canada, immigration law requires that every individual gets a fair hearing on their asylum claims. If their claims are not eligible, the claimant is issued a removal order and is released until deportation. Often this process is encumbered with various appeals while the “irregular” immigrant remains within Canada’s borders. Is it at this point that the “irregular border crosser” has in fact become an “illegal immigrant”, who is residing in Canada without any legitimate reason to be here? That would only make sense. However the government and the mainstream media still refuse to call the 534 individuals who are green-lit for deportation “illegal”. Why is that? "I suspect what they will do is to try to make the problem go away in the media," says Karas, citing the fact that the nation is headed to the vote in 2019.
The UN Convention on Refugees and Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act
We need some background on international and national law to understand the Federal government’s insistence on the use of the term “irregular”. Internationally, Article 31 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states: “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened.” A UN representative echoed this sentiment in Canada, saying “They are irregular arrivals. They enter irregularly, but there is nothing illegal when you cross an international border to claim asylum.” In fact, this sentiment is encoded in Section 133 of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act: “A person who has claimed refugee protection, and who came to Canada directly or indirectly from the country in respect of which the claim is made, may not be charged with an offence.” Another legal argument is “defence by necessity” which is described by immigration lawyer Russ Weninger as when a “person can in some cases perform acts that would otherwise be considered criminal if they must perform those acts to avoid some significant harm.” Meaning that although the act of crossing the border is illegal, the situation of the asylum seeker means it is not criminal. Most people who prefer the term “irregular” see it as being a more humane descriptor. Obviously there is nuance with this issue.
Not illegal but a “failed claimant”
However, if the government and mainstream media were interested in the nuance of the situation then they would reserve the term “illegal immigrant” for those individuals whose claims were faulty or dishonest. Yet this is not the case. For the CBC, people who remain in the country illegally and are waiting for deportation are now unwelcome “foreign nationals”. And for the Public Safety Ministry they are to be called “failed claimants”. You see, the mission here is to entirely eradicate the very category of “illegal immigrant” by the root, so that it is never spoken or heard of in Canada again. The fact that the Immigration Ministry’s press secretary politely explained to me how the language I was using was not reflective of reality is worrying. It makes me wonder, how many other journalists have received the same call? However, according to Candice Malcolm "There is still possibility for illegal immigrants, like overstaying your visa." The fact remains that the mainstream media has overwhelmingly bought into this language game, even the right of center publications. Very few outlets today report on the border situation by using the term “illegal immigration”. The federal government has even gone so far as to try and correct the language use of the provincial government. When the Ontario Premier Doug Ford decided to opt for calling the individuals crossing into his province “illegal border crossers”, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen wagged his finger in disapproval. “I’m very concerned by Premier Ford and minister MacLeod really making statements that are difficult to understand when it comes to how they’re describing asylum seekers,” he told journalists in Halifax. However, despite this attempt to control the dialogue, Canadians remain outraged. "Immigration has never been this unpopular," says Candice Malcolm. According to recent figures, nearly half of Canadians want immigration levels to decrease. “We’re not making a value judgement, the influx is very damaging for how the public at large looks at immigration," says Sergio Karas. In Canada we don’t have illegal immigrants, we have “irregular border crossers” and they’re here to stay.