OTTAWA — It was seen as an easy campaign promise to fulfil.
Now it’s threatening to be a thorn in the Liberal government’s side as it prepares to host U.S. President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Pena Nieto, next month.
The issue is visas for Mexican travellers. The Liberals promised during the election campaign to “immediately” lift the requirement which was imposed by the Conservatives in 2009, as a “first step” to improving relations with its North American partners.
Six months later, Mexicans still need visas to travel to Canada.
The government says it is working on the matter and that it remains committed to restoring visa-free travel for Mexico. But the clock is ticking on a decision as Pena Nieto prepares to visit Ottawa at the end of June.
Asked about the visa requirements Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government is “working with diligence and we hope to have good things to announce in the weeks and months ahead.”
Asked if they would be lifted before Pena Nieto’s visit, he was non-committal. “We hope so.”
The Conservative government imposed visa requirements on travellers from Mexico and the Czech Republic without warning in July 2009, blaming skyrocketing refugee claims from the two countries. Nearly 1,000 Mexicans a month were arriving in Canada and filing for asylum, the most of any country.
The Conservatives justified the move by noting that only about 10 per cent of the claims from Mexico were actually accepted. Figures tabled in the House of Commons in February pegged the cost of processing those claims, both successful and unsuccessful, at more than $400 million a year.
But the number of Mexican tourists coming to Canada, one of the few groups on the rise at the time, plummeted.
The visa requirement also made it harder for Canadian companies to do business with Mexico and it offended Mexicans of all stripes.
The anger only grew after the Conservatives, in response to threats from the European Union over free trade, lifted the Czech visa requirements in November 2013, but kept them on Mexico.
The dispute became so contentious that Pena Nieto cancelled a visit to Ottawa and Calgary in 2014 over the issue.
Now he is coming for an official state visit at the end of June, meeting with Trudeau and Obama June 29.
Mexican officials say they want some commitment before Pena Nieto arrives to show Canada is serious.
Latin America expert Carlo Dade of the Canada West Foundation says one thing is certain: “The Liberals damn well better have something convincing set up.”
Even then, unless the visa requirement is lifted entirely, the issue will cloud Mexican perceptions of Canada and Pena Nieto’s visit.
The government has not said what the hold-up has been in reinstating visa-free travel, but it seems clear there are concerns that doing so will result in a new flood of unfounded asylum claims.
In the House of Commons this week, Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel cited department figures showing that before visas were required, one in four Mexican visitors was applying for refugee status. It is now fewer than one in 100.
Visa officers have also been rejecting five per cent of Mexican visa requests for fear the travellers will not leave Canada after their visit. The department says its preferred threshold for visa-free countries is less than two per cent.
Immigration officials also confirmed at committee they have not conducted a formal review to see if the conditions were right for visa-free travel from Mexico — proof, the Tories say, there may be another wave of unfounded refugee claimants if the visa requirement is lifted.
Source : National Post