Canada frets over possible huge surge in asylum-seekers: sources

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada fears a huge surge in asylum seekers crossing the border from the United States, putting political pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of a 2019 election, sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The number of migrants illegally entering Canada more than tripled in July and August, hitting nearly 7,000. Haitians, who face looming deportation from the United States when their temporary protected status expires in January 2018, accounted for much of the inflow.

Two sources familiar with Canadian government thinking said citizens from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, who are slated to lose their U.S. protected status in early 2018, may also head north.

“There is concern we’ll see a huge increase, mostly from Central America,” said one source.

“The question is, which group is next, and how are we going to deal with it, and what is the impact on Canadians?” added the source, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.

Most new arrivals are going to the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, sparking protests from opposition politicians and anti-immigrant groups.

Trudeau’s Liberals need to gain support in Quebec to offset expected losses elsewhere ahead of an October 2019 election.

FILE PHOTO: A group of asylum seekers wait to be processed after being escorted from their tent encampment to the Canada Border Services in Lacolle, Quebec, Canada August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

Asked whether the Liberals were worried about losing popularity in Quebec, the source said: “Absolutely. That’s a concern.”

But if Trudeau clamps down too far, he risks tarnishing a long-cultivated reputation for openness and tolerance. He pointedly tweeted Canada’s welcome of refugees after U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled a travel ban in January.

“The government is in a real quandary over this,” said a third source familiar with official thinking.

Ottawa has hardened its tone in recent days, warning people not to cross the border since they could well be deported.

Trudeau said Canada was enforcing immigration rules.

“We are an open and welcoming country because citizens have confidence in our immigration and refugee system and we have been able to continue to defend and protect the integrity of that system,” he told reporters in Montreal on Wednesday.

He also said Ottawa might accelerate the process of issuing work permits for asylum seekers rather than make them wait for refugee claims to be processed, which now takes several months.

Leger Marketing pollster Christian Bourque said there were no immediate signs that support in Quebec for Trudeau was weakening.

“I think that changes if people do not perceive the government is taking a strong stand,” he said.

A Reuters poll in March found nearly half of Canadians want to deport people who are illegally crossing from the United States.

A Haitian-Canadian Liberal legislator is due to visit Miami on Thursday, home to a large expatriate community, in a bid to persuade people to stay put. Officials complain false stories are circulating about how easy it is to be granted permission to stay in Canada.

Some of the Haitians are in temporary housing, including Montreal’s Olympic Stadium and at least two tent camps near the border.

Critics accuse Trudeau of encouraging would-be refugees to come to Canada without thinking through the consequences.

Additional reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Sandra Maler