Why is Ottawa dragging its heels on the Mexican visa?

The Canadian government has reiterated its promise to lift the visa requirement but has stayed mum on a timeframe and reason for the delay. Is Trudeau’s North American vision at stake?

By: /
March 31, 2016
Canada's Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, at centre, speaks during a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Mexico's Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu in Quebec City, January 29, 2016. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Mexico’s former Ambassador to Canada, Francisco Suárez Dávila, says Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will likely refuse to attend Justin Trudeau’s proposed North American Leaders' Summit this summer unless the visa requirement on Mexico is revoked — a promise Trudeau and members of his cabinet have reiterated several times since forming government.

“I find it very difficult to concede that President Peña will come to Canada if he has to subject himself to the visa requirement,” Suárez said in an interview from Mexico City, where he retired following the end of his Canadian post in December. “It's a pity because we really could be in the beginning of a golden age of a really grand relationship.”

Trudeau indicated North American relations were a top priority on the campaign trail last year, when he first promised to revoke the visa if elected. He has repeatedly underscored the importance of regional cooperation, most recently in Washington earlier this month, where he emphasized working together on environmental policy and invited U.S. President Barack Obama to a North American Leaders' Summit in Canada this summer. 

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion has similarly mentioned the visa’s elimination — a priority listed in his mandate letter — on several occasions, including the Ottawa Forum in January and, days later, at a news conference during a trilateral meeting in Québec City where he said the visa situation would be “resolved, finished, kaput.”

A timeline has not been provided by any governmental office, nor has an explanation been given for the delay.

A representative from the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (whose minister’s mandate letter also mentions the visa) told OpenCanada in an email that “Canada is committed to implementing visa-free travel for Mexican visitors” and assured that visa processing services are of the “highest level.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs refrained from commenting for this article. 

People now think there’s no visa and there is, so I suspect people are going to the airport thinking they don’t need a visa and getting turned back,” says Laura Macdonald, a political science professor at Carleton University who was in Mexico last month on a research trip. “There’s just been a lack of clarity and a lack of a communication strategy.”

The visa was put in place in 2009 under the Conservative government after refugee claims from Mexico spiked quickly over several years. By 2008, the country was the number one source of Canada’s overall claims, with more than 9,000 claims made in that year alone (or 25 percent of all claims received).

“The visa process will allow us to assess who is coming to Canada as a legitimate visitor and who might be trying to use the refugee system to jump the immigration queue,” Minister Jason Kenney said at the time.

Though the claims have since significantly decreased (in 2014 there were 80), criticism of the visa grew increasingly loud toward the end of Stephen Harper’s tenure, especially from the business and political communities of both countries.

Tension over the issue led to the cancellation of a visit from Peña Nieto in 2015 and of at least one visit of a high-level delegation of Mexican CEOs. The visa itself also caused a drop in Mexican tourists to Canada.

There was a brief outburst of euphoria when the announcement was made that they were going to get rid of it,” Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the U.S.-based Wilson Center, recalls. It just shows once again that the bilateral relationship isn’t really a priority for either country. There’s lots of nice talk about it, lots of grand words about strategic partnerships and regional partners and my ‘neighbour’s neighbour,’ but the fact is that neither side really believes that the other one is of crucial importance. Its importance is in the context of the relationship with the United States.”

But without an official explanation, Wood and many others have been left to speculate on why the delay is ongoing.

Former Ambassador Suárez suggests it may simply be due to “some elements of bureaucracy,” while some say there may be more at play, including internal discussions over security and a plan of action for Canada’s immigration system.

“Maintaining a visa on Mexico has hurt our tourism, has hurt our relationship with Mexico, hurt our capacity to grow inside NAFTA… but I am troubled by the lack of [public] discussion around the almost certain increase we will see in refugee claims,” says Arne Kislenko, a Ryerson professor who worked 12 years as a senior immigration officer at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.

Kislenko says he wouldn’t be surprised if the topic had been discussed behind closed doors in Washington this month, as the U.S. would likely be concerned about allowing Mexicans to once again travel freely into Canada.  

“It’s a legitimate concern because it has actually been the case — it’s not guessing when you know that most criminal syndicates coming out of Latin America, now based principally in Québec, came through the refugee claimant process,” Kislenko says. “The government doesn’t talk about this stuff for obvious reasons but you ask anybody in the business and they’ll say, ‘of course’.” 

The promise to revoke the visa comes at a time when Canada’s refugee system has been lauded internationally for its intake of more than 25,000 Syrians over the past several months.

But that influx has also tested the limits of the system, Kislenko says. “It puts a tremendous strain on it. We have taken in, under great urgency, with great speed, with tremendous assets deployed, [a great] number of Syrians, short of what we imagined, but within a few months.”

The majority of criticism against the visa over the past several years avoided deeper discussions around migration, instead focusing on the political strain it has caused between the two countries.

The visa requirement — along with Canada’s inclusion of Mexico as a Designated Country of Origin and Third Safe Country — essentially implies that legitimate refugees do not exist in the country, something some see as problematic.

“We know it’s a country where there have been tens of thousands of deaths over the last eight-to-10 years and 25,000 people missing,” Macdonald, the Carleton professor, says. “There are allegations of widespread torture, basically a culture of impunity and there are widespread concerns over the safety of human rights protectors and journalists and other categories of people…They need to be thinking about how to address those legitimate claims.”

Wood emphasizes that increased economic investment could help improve living conditions in Mexico, which in turn may slow migration as well. “We can’t say that the U.S. and Canada have a responsibility to develop Mexico…What they can do is help Mexico to strengthen its institutions, help Mexico to strengthen its rule of law, its policing institutions, its judicial institutions,” he says.

In the meantime, however, Mexicans are left in the dark as to when the visa will be lifted, though former Ambassador Suárez says an announcement should be made before the North American Leaders' summit, or in time for Mexicans to be included in the list of visa-exempt travellers who will soon require an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) for entry into Canada.

“It will not be well received by the Mexican public opinion to have 50 countries, some of which are quite secondary in their relationship with Canada, get into eTA and we will still have to wait,” he says. “There's a honeymoon with the U.S., there could be one with Mexico. Let's get this out of the way.”