Canada’s plan to require visas from some Mexicans is a dangerous overreaction

Lloyd Axworthy is chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council. Rafael Fernandez de Castro is director of the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Fen Osler Hampson is president of the World Refugee & Migration Council.

This op-ed was first published by The Globe and Mail.

The federal government has announced it will reimpose some visa requirements on Mexican nationals to stem the surge of Mexican refugees and asylum seekers, which has grown from 250 in 2016 to 17,490 in 2023. Stephen Harper’s government first implemented the requirement in 2009, which was reversed under Justin Trudeau in 2016.

It was clearly tempting for Ottawa to reach once again for this kill switch, especially amid public pressure from Quebec and the United States. But it should not have taken such drastic action. Instead, it should get serious about tackling the real roots of the problem: organized crime, which is playing a central role not just in spurring more and more asylum seekers and migrants to flee northward to safety, but in the smuggling and trafficking of people across borders, including our own.

Criminal gangs and networks are now widely recognized as one of the main drivers of displacement throughout Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean. High levels of violence caused by competition among rival gangs for local development, land and resource exploitation, control of the production, distribution and trafficking of narcotics and sale of arms, and state-affiliated political colectivos (or collectives) have forced people to leave their homes in search of a better life. So, too, have rising levels of sexual violence and exploitation of women and girls, which are perpetrated by local gangs to exercise control of the local population.

Criminal groups also play a crucial role in the migration corridors that run from South America through Central America to the Mexico-U.S. and Canada-U.S. border. Many groups are involved in smuggling people across interstate boundaries and human trafficking in exchange for lucrative financial or material compensation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, despite border closures and other restrictions on the movement of people, the demand for services provided by smugglers grew, in part because of weakening local job markets.

In Canada, attention has tended to focus on asylum seekers entering Canada from the United States. But the flow of migrants heading in the opposite direction is rapidly increasing. In 2021, U.S. officials logged a total of 27,180 northern land border encounters; in 2022, that figure jumped to 109,535; by 2023, it was 189,402. That year, there were 10,021 illegal-crossing arrests, with migrants from Mexico accounting for more than half of the interceptions by U.S. authorities, followed by migrants from India and from Venezuela. These figures pale compared to the more than 2 million encounters on the U.S.’s southern border last year, but the relative ease of crossing into the U.S. from Canada has made the northern border increasingly attractive.

Mexican gangs like the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas are also finding Canada to be a hospitable place to do business in drugs, money laundering and human smuggling and trafficking, alongside other international criminal syndicates from India, Iran, China and elsewhere. Canadian laws have been weakly enforced due to our porous ports, a lack of resources for police and intelligence services, political and public inattention, and the ineffectiveness of FINTRAC, the agency responsible for tracking and analyzing information about money laundering.

Putting Canada’s relations with its third-most important trading partner on ice once again, just because Mexico is a weak link in the North American migration-crime nexus, serves no useful purpose. Instead, as argued by the North and Central American Task Force on Migration, of which we are members, we should be working with Mexico, the United States and our regional neighbours to develop a robust framework to combat traffickers and organized crime in a serious, systematic way.

Before Mr. Trudeau’s government lifted it, Mexicans were deeply offended by Canada’s cumbersome visa requirement, which required visitors to endure a frustrating process operated by an inadequately staffed bureaucracy. Canadian businesses, farmers, and tourist operators also suffered heavily. But the untold damage of visa requirements may be even more significant today: more than 350,000 Mexicans visit Canada annually, and 2 million Canadians – many of them vacationers – travel to Mexico; the country has become the 10th-largest destination for Canadian investment, with some 2,000 Canadian companies now doing business there. Fortunately, it appears that the reimposed visa restrictions won’t affect those coming to Canada on study or work permits, as seasonal workers from Mexico are the linchpin of our agricultural sector, and academic exchanges between Mexican and Canadian institutions of higher learning have grown dramatically.

Still, the federal government seems to have chosen the quick and easy way out – a short-sighted decision amid growing election fever that fails to address the real roots of the problem.


  • WRMC