Earlier this year, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird marked the 70th anniversary of bilateral relations with Mexico by calling the country a “trusted and long-term partner of choice.” A month later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a state visit to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and the two expanded an air access agreement. But despite official niceties between the two governments, one issue continues to stick out like a sore thumb — Canada’s visa restriction on Mexicans, which the Harper government imposed in 2009.
Since the Canadian government announced the restriction, citing a spike in Mexican refugee claimants and the need to curb the number of people “trying to use the refugee system to jump the immigration queue,” criticism from various sectors and political groups in both Canada and Mexico has been fierce.
Most critics have highlighted the damage the visa causes to business and political ties between the two countries, especially in light of expectations set by NAFTA.
But by focusing on economic and political impacts of the visa, its criticism has avoided confronting the serious questions the visa raises with regards to social justice, refugee determination and the context behind the rise in claims — the increase in drug-related violence and impunity in Mexico.
In the wake of the disappearance of 43 students from Guerrero, the lack of understanding and appreciation of the reality in Mexico, by the Canadian government but also by Canadians, seems more apparent than ever.
More evidence has emerged that local authorities were likely involved with the students’ disappearance, as cartel members have claimed police officers handed the students over to them to be killed. Protest and anger against the Peña Nieto administration have escalated ever since.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, public discourse on the visa restriction has done little to question the Canadian government’s bold assumption that there are no safety and security concerns in Mexico that might explain a rise in refugee claims. Even by visa critics, there has been little disagreement with the Canadian government’s assertion that the rise in refugee claims by Mexicans, which by 2008 had become 25 percent of all claims in Canada, is “undermining our ability to help people fleeing ‘real’ persecution.”
The Canadian government frames Mexican claims as a “burden” to the system, as opposed to the “legitimate” or “bona fide” visitor. Criticism of the visa has likewise ignored exploring whether there is a correlation between a rise in refugee claims and an increase in violence in Mexico in the late 2000s and well into this decade. Estimates vary but are usually within the tens of thousands for deaths and disappearances since the militarized drug war began in 2006. Despite this, however, in 2013 Canada put Mexico on its list of Designated Countries of Origin for Refugee or Asylum Claimants, which the Canadian government describes as a list of “countries that do not normally produce refugees, but do respect human rights and offer state protection.”
So, are there not ‘real’ reasons for some Mexicans to seek refuge in Canada?
Luis Horacio Najera, a long-time Mexican journalist who covered the disappearance of women and the narcotrade in Ciudad Juarez for La Reforma, knows those reasons personally. He has had a gun pointed at his chest five times over his career and says the day his wife was threatened was the last straw. He brought his family to Canada in 2008 and by 2010 had received refugee status. “It is important to understand that unfortunately, a number of Mexican citizens came to Canada and created a bogus case, others came and were unable to support themselves…while others cannot provide enough evidence to support their claim and their claims were rejected,” he says.
“However, I do think there is indeed a lack of awareness and therefore a lack of understanding among Canadians about the situation in Mexico, and how this complex and constantly evolving reality affects hundreds or thousands of lives daily. The current situation in Mexico is migrating from the violence by organized crime to the violence against human and civil rights activists by the government,” he says.
Officials in the U.S. have started to address a possible wave of “narco-refugees,” perhaps unsurprising as they share the border with Mexico’s northern and most volatile front. In a 2011 report, U.S. military advisor Paul Rexton Kan called the issue a “looming challenge for U.S. security” but admitted the situation in Mexico makes it difficult to define its victims. While several areas in Mexico are experiencing brutal violence, “it defies easy classification,” he wrote, asking if it is a case of insurgency, terrorism, gangsterism or “all of them combined.” The fact that the situation in northern Mexico is somewhere between “war and crime” and the “murkiness” of this classification makes it difficult for those “seeking legal sanctuary in the U.S,” he said.
Of course, refugee claimants also depend on proof of threats against them, and the fact that media in Mexico often self-censors due to the risks against journalists makes it hard to estimate the real level of violence, especially in the north.
The belief in the bogus/legitimate definition — even by critics of the visa in Canada — ignores the changing nature of migration and refugee movement, especially from Central America and Mexico.
“There’s a very thin line between political and economic motivations for migration. If a person can’t earn a livelihood and decides to cross an international border in search of new opportunities, you could argue that that act is a political statement,” author and Cornell University professor Maria Cristina Garcia told OpenCanada an interview earlier this year.
“The UN for some time now has recognized that its own definition of refugee does not meet the realities of today’s world. And there are some international conventions that have a much broader definition of refugee… that takes into account that people can be displaced not because they have been individually persecuted but rather they are fleeing a climate of violence. They recognize that a climate of violence can displace people and make them refugees.”
Research from a similarly critical standpoint has pointed to the arbitrary nature of Canada’s refugee and visa policies — deconstructing the idea of a fair determination system.
Political science professor at the University of Ottawa, Mark Salter, called the Mexican visa, and a visa previously imposed on Czech citizens to curb the migration of Roma people, a way to “restrict access to the basic rights of mobility for certain populations.” Essentially, according to York University’s Gerald Kernerman, visas can “pre-empt [Canada’s] obligation to refugees under the Convention by interdicting them before they reach their borders,” similar to cases more often associated with refugee interdiction, such as blocking a ship at sea.
As a result, while the United States-Mexico border may be the most securitized border within North America, Canada has made it clear that also it prefers to keep Mexican relations at a certain distance. Like the border wall built across the Arizona, Texas and California frontiers, is the visa restriction Canada’s version of a migration barrier against Mexico?
One thing seems more certain – criticism of this barrier can reaffirm assumptions or shape any changes the Canadian government proposes in the future, including whether to give certain Mexicans priority access or whether to revoke the visa completely. The debate, therefore, needs to look beyond the economic impact of the visa, and address the multifaceted and changing nature of migration between Central and North America.
U.S.-based Foreign Policy Magazine recently criticized President Obama for not calling “Peña Nieto to account for his responsibility with regard to the Sept. 26 murders and disappearances,” and Americans for not recognizing “the complicity of the U.S. government with the crisis of violence, corruption, and human rights abuses in Mexico.”
It is time for Canadians to bring such an impassioned, nuanced conversation to the fore.