OTTAWA, Ontario — President Joe Biden arrived in Canada on Thursday for talks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on several of the world’s most difficult challenges: the war in Ukraine, climate change, trade, mass migration and an increasingly assertive China.
Two important agreements appeared to be in hand before Biden even departed Washington. Canada will escalate its timeline for military upgrades to the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the two nations have reached an agreement to update rules for migrants seeking asylum, according to U.S. and Canadian officials. The officials were not authorized to comment publicly and request anonymity.
The migration deal eliminates a loophole under existing rules that will allow both countries to turn away asylum seekers at the countries’ borders. The loophole resulted in thousands of migrants annually crossing into Canada from the U.S. at a non-official checkpoint, enabling them to stay in the country as they seek asylum instead of letting the process play out while staying in the U.S.
As part of the agreement, Canada is expected to announce that 15,000 migrants from the Western Hemisphere will be given slots to apply to enter the country, according to the Canadian official.
The new policy applies to people without U.S. or Canadian citizenship who are caught within 14 days of crossing the border between the two countries. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on the agreement, which is expected to be formally announced on Friday.
The visit comes as the Biden administration has made strengthening its friendship with Canada a priority over the past two years. Both sides see the meetings in the capital of Ottawa as an opportunity to set plans for the future.
National security and air defenses are top of mind, after a recent Chinese spy balloon floating over North America with newfound urgency on Canada’s plans to update its radar systems and recent purchase of F-35 jets. Canada has agreed to an accelerated timeline for spending billions more on military upgrades for NORAD, which monitors the skies above the continent, according to the senior Canadian government official.
Canada announced last year it is investing $3.8 billion (Canadian $4.9 billion) over the next six years to modernize NORAD radar systems and billions more years later, but David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, has said the current threat climate calls for earlier investment.
The loophole in the U.S.-Canada migration rules allowed thousands of migrants to cross into Canada from the U.S. at a non-official checkpoint, enabling them to stay in the country as they seek asylum instead of letting the process play out while staying in the U.S.
A quirk in a 2002 agreement between the U.S. and Canada says people seeking asylum must apply in the first country they arrive in. Migrants who go to an official crossing are returned to the U.S. and told to apply there. But those who arrive in Canada at a location other than a port of entry are allowed to stay and request protection, as has been happening on Roxham Road between Champlain, New York, and Quebec.
More than 39,000 claims were filed in 2022 by people who were intercepted by Canadian police, the vast majority of them in Quebec and at Roxham Road.
The broadened focus of Biden’s visit represents an evolution of a friendship between the two countries that exceeds 150 years. The emphasis had more frequently been on issues like trade that had defined relations between the two countries, which share a 5,525-mile border.
“This visit is about taking stock of what we’ve done, where we are and what we need to prioritize for for the future,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “We’re going to talk about our two democracies stepping up to meet the challenges of our time.”
There will still be an emphasis on trade, yet Canada and the U.S. see the partnership as crucial in supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, reducing their dependence on Chinese goods and shifting toward cleaner energy sources amid the planetary damage caused by burning fossil fuels.
The leaders are also expected to discuss tapping critical minerals that will enable the production of electric vehicles, and military and economic commitments at a moment that observers say is the most dangerous since World War II. Chinese President Xi Jinping this week visited Russian President Vladimir Putin, pledging to deepen their economic ties in ways that could help fund Putin’s ongoing war to take Ukraine.
“The United States is coming with big strategic issues on their mind,” said Vincent Rigby, a former national security adviser to Trudeau. “It’s a world where they’re looking to allies to help.”
The ties between the two countries are without parallel. Trade between the U.S. and Canada totaled an estimated record of $950 billion (Canadian $1.3 trillion) in 2022. Each day, about 400,000 people cross the world’s longest international border, and about 800,000 Canadian citizens live in the United States. There is close cooperation on defense, border security and law enforcement, and a vast overlap in culture, traditions and pastimes.
Biden will address Parliament and Trudeau will host him for a state dinner Friday evening. It is Biden’s first visit to Canada since he became president, but Trudeau also gave Biden a state dinner when he was vice president in December 2016 just before Donald Trump took office.
“It didn’t need to have happened. It was an incredibly well timed and wise investment on the prime minister’s part to do that and I think it’s paid dividends,” said Bruce Heyman, who was U.S. ambassador to Canada at the time.
Last year, Canada was exempted from the subsidy restrictions for electric vehicles in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Heyman calls it a huge win for Canada. The European Union hasn’t received the same preferential treatment.
Senior Canadian government officials said this week in a call with reporters that Trudeau will ask for more inclusions in the Inflation Reduction Act and said meeting face to face with the U.S. president about bilateral issues is critical for Canada.
Biden has used his foreign trips to reestablish the U.S. as a global leader that’s willing to listen to and work together with its partners, even as his administration has embraced an industrial strategy that is about reviving U.S. manufacturing and the middle class.
The trip comes after the president’s visit last month to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and Poland and as the 2024 U.S. election is heating up with the expectation that Biden will formally announce his plans to seek reelection.
One Canadian official noted that President Barack Obama didn’t stay overnight when he visited and Canada’s government is pleased that Biden will. Trump never visited Canada for bilateral meetings, his only appearance being a G-7 summit after which he and White House aides assailed Trudeau as a “weak” and dishonest” back-stabber. Trump threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement before eventually renegotiating it. “I think that Trudeau’s biggest ask is that Biden win the next election,” said historian Robert Bothwell. “Everything else is subordinate to that.” The NORAD partnership was in the spotlight recently when NORAD tracked a suspected Chinese spy balloon that passed over the two countries before being shot down over the coast of South Carolina. A U.S. fighter jet later shot down an unidentified flying object in Canadian airspace.
The British, Australians and Japanese are all investing more in defense given the threats posed by Beijing and Moscow, and the U.S. expects its northern neighbor to do its part. Canada has long faced calls to increase its defense spending to 2% of its gross domestic product, the agreed-upon target by NATO members. Ottawa spends about 1.2% now. Canada announced in January it will purchase 88 F-35 fighter jets but at the time of the announcement said the first four don’t arrive for another three years. The U.S. is also pushing Canada to lead an international force in Haiti but Canada’s top military official has suggested he doesn’t have the capacity.