Calderon To Press Harper On Visa Issue At Three Amigos Summit

Calderon to press Harper on visa issue at Three Amigos summit

By Andrew Mayeda
Canwest News Service
August 6, 2009

OTTAWA—-Mexican President Felipe Calderon will press Prime Minister Stephen Harper to drop the visa restrictions that Canada recently imposed on Mexican nationals when the two leaders meet this weekend at the Three Amigos Summit, Mexican sources say.

Harper travels to Guadalajara on Sunday for a two-day summit with Calderon and U.S. President Barack Obama. It will be the first so-called “Three Amigos” summit, a tradition established by former president George W. Bush, since Obama took office.

But the new visa rules, which require that all Mexican nationals arriving in Canada obtain a visa, threaten to overshadow other areas of possible co-operation between the two countries.

The visa issue, which has incensed Mexican officials and provoked an uproar in the Mexican media, will top Calderon's agenda when he holds his bilateral meeting with Harper, according to a Mexican government source. The Mexican president is expected to propose a number of alternatives, such as enhanced screening by Mexican authorities of travellers to Canada, as well as a crackdown on immigration brokers who urge Mexicans to seek asylum in Canada in exchange for a fee.

Calderon is also expected to encourage the Canadian government to share more information on refugee seekers with Mexican officials, who say Canadian authorities have been reluctant to do so, due to privacy concerns.

If Harper stands his ground, as Mexican officials expect, Calderon hasn't ruled out imposing a similar blanket visa requirement on all Canadians travelling to Mexico. Last month, just days after Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced the visa requirements, Mexico slapped its own visa requirement on Canadian diplomats.

“That's always a possibility,” said the Mexican source, when asked if the Calderon government plans further retaliation.

As fellow conservative leaders in a hemisphere where they are becoming increasingly scarce, Harper and Calderon have enjoyed relatively warm relations. But Mexican sources suggest the president has not appreciated the way in which the Harper government has handled the visa affair.

According to the Mexican source, Calderon called Harper in the spring to thank Canada for its help combating the swine-flu outbreak. To Calderon's surprise, the prime minister warned that Canada would soon impose the visa restriction.

A spokesman for the prime minister declined to comment on the visa issue on Thursday.

The Harper government has said the new visa restrictions were necessary to stem the flow of bogus refugee claims from Mexico, which last year accounted for over 9,400 claims, or one-quarter of Canada's total. Only 11 per cent of the Mexican claims were accepted.

But Mexican officials say the universal visa requirement unfairly punishes Mexican tourists, students and entrepreneurs who enter Canada legitimately.

Meanwhile, Canadian business groups say the new rules have created headaches for industries that regularly employ workers from Mexico, such as the tourism and agriculture sectors.

“It is a significant worry,” said Dan Kelly, senior vice-president of legislative affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which represents over 100,000 small businesses nationwide. “I understand why the government felt this was necessary, but we hope this is a very short-term move, and we hope the government will pursue other strategies to address the core problem, which is the refugee system.”

Carlo Dade, executive director of the Canadian Foundation of the Americas, said the visa affair is an unfortunate blight on a relationship that has been strengthening in recent years on several fronts, despite “benign neglect” by politicians on both sides. In 2007, Canada exported $17.2 billion worth of goods to Mexico, making it the third top destination for Canadian exports.

“This will not destroy (the relationship). The relationship will continue. There's too much at stake, and we're doing too much. But this was a serious blunder,” said Dade.

Some critics say the visa flap could undermine the Harper government's ability to form a united front with Mexico against U.S. protectionism at the summit.

“With his gratuitous shot at Mexico, Prime Minister Harper has complicated an agenda that should have focused on more important issues like Buy American,” said Liberal trade critic Scott Brison.