Refugee advocates are urging Canada to keep its borders open to the world’s most vulnerable people as U.S. President Donald Trump orders the construction of a wall with Mexico and cracks down on illegal immigration.

As promised during the election campaign, Mr. Trump signed executive orders Wednesday to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and strip federal grant money from “sanctuary” states and cities that shield illegal immigrants. Canadian refugee advocates say it’s critical that Canada continue to welcome newcomers, especially amid an unprecedented global refugee crisis that has displaced more than 65 million people.

“It’s absolutely devastating news for refugees around the world,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “What is happening in the U.S. makes even more important Canada’s openness to refugees because the options are significantly smaller when the U.S. closes its doors.”

Without mentioning Mr. Trump or his policies, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office said Wednesday that Canada has “always been welcoming of newcomers and will continue to do so.”

Experts say Canada could see an increase in the number of Mexican immigrants and refugees as a result of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration sentiments and a recent Canadian policy change. Mexicans who feel unwelcome in the United States may now be looking a little further north to Canada, where the Liberal government lifted a visa requirement for Mexican travellers just last month. The visa requirement had been in place since 2009 when the Conservatives imposed it after a rise in invalid refugee claims from Mexico.

“The spike in Mexican immigration in general, but particularly refugee claims, is definitely going to happen in Canada,” said Toronto-based immigration lawyer Chantal Desloges. “You couldn’t imagine worse timing. We just lifted the visa requirement and now to have things shut down in the U.S., that’s going to be a definite driver.”

The government is prepared to reinstate the visa requirement if the number of Mexican asylum seekers surpasses 3,500 within any 12-month period.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said the Mexican visa issue could backfire on the Liberals, especially given the fact that they were warned against it. Immigration department officials opposed the decision last year, arguing that Mexico’s poor human-rights record, high crime rates and low standard of living would drive Mexican refugee claimants to Canada.

“When the government lifted this visa requirement against the advice of bureaucrats and public servants without a formal review, I think Canadians started thinking, ‘Why are they doing that?’” Ms. Rempel said.

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services at Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said his organization is developing contingency plans for a possible influx of Mexican arrivals, including the preparation of housing and legal services.

However, Mexican refugee claimants hoping to flee Mr. Trump’s America and claim status in Canada won’t be able to do so, due to a special arrangement between Canada and the United States. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, refugee claimants are required to request protection in the first safe country they arrive in and since the United States is considered a safe country by Ottawa, they are not allowed to make a claim in Canada after doing so in the U.S. A few exceptions are made for some refugee claimants, such as unaccompanied minors.

Mexicans aren’t Mr. Trump’s only target. The President is expected to sign executive orders in the coming days blocking the issuing of visas to people from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Yemen.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan called on Mr. Hussen to present a plan to Canadians outlining how the government will address the implications of Mr. Trump’s immigration policies.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017 7:57PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017 9:20AM EST