OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre called for the closure of the Roxham Road irregular border crossing on Tuesday, but sidestepped questions about one of his MPs denying help to a family who used it to enter the country.
During a news conference on Parliament Hill,his first of 2023,he told reporters that he favours legal immigration but can understand the desperation that leads migrants to cross into Canada through the unofficial entry point south of Montreal.
"I understand why desperate people are trying to cross there," he said. "Our system is now so slow and so broken."
Poilievre pointed to the fact that the federal immigration department currently has a backlog of nearly 1.1 million applications to process, which was higher under periods of lockdown during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada reported that as of the end of November, it had 1.09 million applications in the queue that exceed the department's service standard, a problem that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has committed to tackle.
The Tory leader argued Tuesday that fixing the problem could lead to fewer people crossing through unofficial entry points such as Roxham Road.
"It is not legal to cross there. That is a reality. It is not legal to cross there."
Thousands of asylum-seekers have entered the country between official ports of entry in recent years and then made refugee claims once in Canada.
Those who come from the United States via official crossings can be turned away under Canada's Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., on the basis that claimants have access to fair asylum processes south of the border.
Radio-Canada reported last month that Quebec Conservative MP Richard Martel recently refused to help a family that was facing deportation after having entered Canada through Roxham Road in 2018, calling them "illegal refugees."
Poilievre did not directly answer when asked about Martel's comments Tuesday, but said the Liberal government should renegotiate the Canada-U.S. agreement "in order to close Roxham Road."
He said Trudeau must fix the system so that people enter through official entry points, instead: "Renegotiate the deal with the Americans, and speed up the processing of immigration generally."
In December, in a French interview with The Canadian Press,José Nicola Lopez said that his sister-in-law Leticia Cruz and her son had crossed into Canada via Roxham Road to join their relatives in 2018.
He said she did so because she feared expulsion under former president Donald Trump's policies, and was afraid that a possible return to her home country of El Salvador could make her a target for street gangs.
Lopez said at the time that he found Martel's comments to be "offensive" and "ignorant." After Cruz was unable to get help from Martel, whose Chicoutimi-area riding she and her son call home, Bloc Québécois MP Mario Simard said he worked with Immigration Minister Sean Fraser to help the family avoid deportation.
Fraser, the Bloc and the NDP criticized Martel's comments as lacking compassion.
In a recent interview with Radio-Canada, Martel declined to offer specifics about the case.
Speaking in French, he said the case was complex and that he declined to help knowing that the Bloc were in a position to do so. He said he would likely make the same decision if a similar file came across his desk, adding it's a matter of "values."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10,2023.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press