Immigration department changed ‘illegal’ to ‘irregular’ on webpage about asylum seekers as debate flared

The immigration department changed a web page about asylum seekers to swap the word “illegal” for “irregular” as a debate was erupting between the federal government and Ontario on the issue, CBC News has learned.

The change in July came 18 months after the web page, titled “Claiming asylum in Canada – what happens?,” was first published — and just one day after federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen suggested the provincial Progressive Conservatives were mistaken in the way they were describing the status of people entering Canada at non-official entry points.

Throughout the web page, which is intended to provide information on Canada’s asylum laws, the words “illegal” and “illegally” were switched to “irregular” or “irregularly” in six separate instances on July 10, 2018.

On July 9, Hussen attacked Ontario’s newly elected premier, Doug Ford, and provincial Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, who oversees the immigration file, over their use of the term “illegal border-crossers” when describing asylum seekers crossing at non-official border points.

As Hussen was telling a news conference Ford and MacLeod were wrong to call those border crossings “illegal,” his own department was still using that word to describe such crossings on the asylum web page. The next day, the wording was changed to “irregular.”

The change was not ordered by Hussen, said Mathieu Genest, the minister’s spokesperson.

Cached web page reveals change

The Wayback Machine website, an open online library that archives published internet pages, retains a snapshot of the immigration web page as it appeared on July 4, 2018 — when it was still using the word “illegal.” The backgrounder was published originally on March 2, 2017.

The web page lays out the process for seeking asylum or claiming refugee status after crossing the U.S.-Canada border at a designated port of entry, or after arrival at an unofficial crossing point.

“The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) play an instrumental role in protecting Canada’s border, deterring and intercepting irregular entry to Canada and keeping Canadians safe. CBSA, the RCMP and its domestic and international partners work together to intercept individuals who enter Canada irregularly,” the website now reads.

“Given significant confusion around the terminology, the department made incremental updates to all pages to minimize mischaracterization of asylum seekers as being in Canada illegally,” said Nancy Caron, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, in an email to CBC News.

“‎Until their claim is decided, or if they are found to be a refugee, a person will not be charged with an offence based on how they entered Canada.”