OTTAWA - Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says he has hatched a deal with his Liberal critic to push ahead his controversial refugee reform package.
In comments laden with rare compliments for his political opponent, Kenney said he is accepting all the changes put forward by Liberal immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua, in the hopes of having the refugee reform bill passed by this summer.
"My advice to the opposition would be to claim victory, and let's get this done," Kenney said Tuesday.
"It's urgent that we get workable reforms to the asylum system. That means a package that can get consensus in a minority parliament. For that reason, I've indicated my openness to a collaborative approach."
The $600-million bill aims to deter fraudsters from filing refugee claims in Canada, and playing the system for years before they are sent home. At the same time, it tries to speed up the approval system for legitimate claimants.
What's controversial is the way the bill proposes to reduce the lags throughout the process — by sorting out people according to their country of origin.
The legislation would have the government develop a list of countries deemed safe. Since officials anticipate that almost all of the claimants from those countries will eventually be rejected, those claimants will go through an expedited process. That way, Canada can cut short the time such people spend in Canada exploiting the system, collecting welfare and using free health-care services.
The safe-country-of-origin plan is mainly meant to deter imposters from coming to Canada, since it wouldn't be worth their while.
But critics of the bill say it creates two classes of refugees, and risks discriminating against some legitimate claimants simply because they may come from democratic countries.
The amendments agreed to by Kenney this week would circumscribe the minister's power to make safe-country designations.
But the mere existence of the safe-country process is still a key stumbling block for many refugee advocates, the NDP, and even some Liberals.
"I still need to be convinced about the safe country of origin," said Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis, who also sits on the immigration committee.
He said he will try to bring forward further amendments — even though Kenney has warned that Liberals should not be looking gift horses in the mouth.
Indeed, Kenney said he'd rather withdraw the whole package than allow more changes.
"If members choose to play politics with this real opportunity for balanced reform, then let's be clear what we will all be losing: a new refugee appeal division for the vast majority of claimants," he told the Commons immigration committee on Tuesday.
The committee is expected to vote on amendments this week, and send it back to the House of Commons to be passed before MPs leave for the summer.
Even though Liberals are split on the bill, the Conservatives only need one Liberal vote at committee, and a handful in the House of Commons, to push the legislation through.
Kenney has also agreed to some other technical changes, including one measure that would slightly lengthen the timelines for refugees to be processed.
"These changes together represent very significant changes to the bill, and address most of the principal concerns that have been expressed by parliamentarians and interest groups," Kenney said.
Not so, said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
"Most refugee advocates will be lobbying members of Parliament to vote against it on third reading," she said.
Dench said the safe-country-of-origin measure, even in the amended version, is "absolutely awful, unacceptable in principle."
The Canadian Bar Association also denounced the measure, predicting the list of safe countries will likely become "politicized."
The association lauded the bill for finally creating a refugee appeal division but questioned why the new appeal process may not be implemented for two years. It called the plan to phase-in implementation "a fatal flaw"and predicted it will be "disastrous for refugee claimants."
Kenney is indicating that he isn't finished with his attack on fraudsters.
He said he plans to announce measures this month that will take aim at immigration consultants who charge newcomers huge fees to cheat the Canadian immigration and refugee system.
"We'll be announcing measures in the near future for a crackdown on unscrupulous immigration consultants that will be very comprehensive," Kenney promised Tuesday.
"Many false refugee claims are facilitated by commercial operators, ghost consultants. And we're going to be cracking down on them in the very near future."