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Justin Trudeau is between a rock and a heart place on immigration

Opinion: As Canada experiences an ’unsustainable’ surge through its borders, Trudeau faces an unpalatable decision over his open-door brand
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a town hall with high school students in Ottawa
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a town hall with high school students in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, November 3, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based columnist and commentator. He was a director of communications to Stephen Harper.

The way Justin Trudeau speaks about the surge of “irregular arrivals” across the Quebec-New York border, you’d think he was talking about a minivan of tourists who got lost on the way to Schenectady.

So breezy is the Prime Minister you might have missed the fact these arrivals have more than tripled over the past few months, with the number fast approaching 7,000, many of them Haitians who appear to be fleeing America as it considers winding down the temporary asylum program set up after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The Immigration and Refugee Board has called this rise of asylum-seekers through the U.S. border “unsustainable.”

Not to worry, though. Canada, the Prime Minister soothed, is building a “temporary housing facility” in Cornwall, Ont., to help ease Quebec’s burden. It’s also boosting capacity at the IRCC processing centre in Montreal, and “reaching out to folks” in the United States to make sure they know the rules.

For those of you who don’t speak in expertly constructed brand-compatible euphemism, that’s one refugee camp, more staff to wade through an 11-year stack of backlogged asylum claims, and sweet whistling into a stiff breeze.

“Canada is a welcoming country,” Trudeau concluded. “But just as we welcome & encourage newcomers, we are also a country of laws.”

The last bit sounds good and Canadian-y. But the problem is that people know Canada’s laws and rules—and their loopholes—and are driving busloads of migrants through them.

“Entering Canada irregularly is not an advantage,” Trudeau replied—emphasis on the lied—when reporters challenged him on the current flaws in Canada’s system.

An irregular arrival, as the Prime Minister well knows, is treated quite differently than one made at a designated border crossing. Why does he think the Haitians are crossing irregularly?

MORE: The migrant surge isn’t a crisis, it’s just a fiasco

The irregular army is also responding to the market signal sent by Trudeau in January, when the Prime Minister tweeted to much international fanfare: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you,” in response to Donald Trump’s first attempt at a Muslim ban.

Now, Trump is about as welcoming as an agitated pit bull on a ratty front lawn, but nobody can argue with a straight face that the Haitians are fleeing “persecution, terror and war.” Trump’s administration is merely intent on treating Haitians the way Canada already does, and Haitians would rather not go home.

What Trudeau now faces as a result is a miniature version of what plagued continental Europe in the wake of Syria’s disintegration. Those who feel insecure in the U.S. feel pretty secure about Canada’s open door, something the Prime Minister himself opened. So they are coming. And no slogan, focus-grouped talking point or artfully worded response to the media can stop them.

The trouble with Trudeau being honest and saying “don’t try your luck here” is that it’s massively off-brand for his Liberal Party. To stop them from coming, Trudeau is going to have to be blunt—we’re talking megaphone blunt—and that could mean lost votes. And so instead, the Prime Minister is dissembling and having Canada’s drenched asylum system try to soak up more arrivals.

MORE: Canada’s immigration system is no kinder than America’s

Off the record, Trudeau’s office is reportedly less relaxed, bemoaning the potential electoral impact of a similar surge from Central America that could be coming as the United States makes changes to the protected status of that troubled region, just as Canada had itself already done in Haiti two years ago. This candidness from unnamed officials confirms the government’s approach to immigration is about brand and politics, not policy.

The Trudeau brand was built, for want of a better word, on “niceness.” It’s the main reason the world is full of glowing praise for Trudeau in the Age of Trump. And so the first time the government puts head before heart—as it needs to do on immigration—will be a painful period. Vanity Fair, Esquire, and—heaven forbid—Rolling Stone might stop calling.

That’s why the Prime Minister’s response has kept the heart front and centre. But if the flow of irregular arrivals doesn’t ebb, Trudeau will have no choice but to apply his brain.

The trouble is, there are no good options when it comes to stopping irregular arrivals. The opposition Conservatives have delivered a dump-truck full of criticism, but they haven’t come up with even a thimbleful of answer. But their job is to keep up pressure on the government, not do it for them.

If there truly is no way around the current problem, Trudeau should have the courage to be honest with Canadians and tell them more people are likely to come, and that it’s a problem.

Sometimes, after all, the nicest thing to do is be honest.