Canada's immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, arrived in Minnesota just days after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand for now new travel restrictions for eight countries, including Somalia — the land a teenage Hussen fled with his family.
But even as he has come to symbolize for some the divergent immigration philosophies on either side of the U.S.-Canada border, Hussen shuns criticism of the Trump administration's approach. In fact, he was in the Twin Cities this week in part to discourage a spike in asylum-seekers crossing into Canada this year that has tested the country's famously welcoming attitude.
"We are huge fans of immigration, but we want people to immigrate through the regular channels," he said.
In a speech at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Hussen touted Canada's measured approach, including a gradual increase in immigration planned over the next three years. He met with resettlement agency staff and other advocates, plugging a unique Canadian program in which private citizens and churches sponsor some refugees. Members of the local Somali community, where he enjoys rock star status, threw him a welcoming reception in Minneapolis.
"He is an icon," said Mohamed Ahmed, a local community leader and Bush Foundation fellow. "People see him as an example of what is possible in the West."
The first Somali-Canadian elected to parliament and appointed as minister, Hussen was 16 when he arrived alone in Toronto, where older brothers had resettled earlier. He has spoken of finding a sense of belonging on his high school track team and of enduring a two-hour commute as he worked at a gas station to save money for college.
He got a law degree from the University of Ottawa and practiced criminal and immigration law. Once a receptionist in an opposition politician's office, he was elected to parliament in 2015. In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped him to lead the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
"I am a big champion of our immigration system because I have been through it," said Hussen, whose visit to Minneapolis was his third to the United States since becoming minister.
In the media, Hussen is often cast as an emblem of Canada's stance against anti-immigration sentiments sweeping the United States and Europe. But he is unfailingly diplomatic about the differences between the Canadian and American approaches, saying only he has a good working relationship with counterparts on this side of the border. And, he stresses, Canada is by no means unified in support of more immigration.
A recent rise in illegal border crossings into Canada has triggered pushback from conservative politicians there and concerns from border communities such as the Manitoba city of Emerson, unsettled and overwhelmed by the arrivals. In Manitoba, many of those arrivals have been Somalis who had unsuccessfully applied for asylum in the United States. Now, Hussen and some Canadian lawmakers are reaching out to immigrant communities to highlight that border crossers undergo rigorous screening and face deportation if their asylum claims fall short.
"We don't want people uprooting their lives based on false information," Hussen said. "Crossing the border irregularly is not a free ticket to Canada."
Ahmed said word in the local Somali community remains that Canada offers a much gentler welcome to those arriving at its border with asylum claims. He spoke of a friend, a permanent resident who faced deportation after a criminal conviction, who crossed into Canada this year. Though he doesn't know yet if he will be granted asylum, the friend reports receiving subsidized housing and free legal help, Ahmed said.
To a packed auditorium at the Humphrey School, Hussen touted a plan the Canadian government released in November that will bring in almost 1 million new immigrants by 2020. About 60 percent will be employment-based immigrants, largely arriving through a merit-based system that awards points for education, language and professional skills, among other factors.
Hussen said doing immigration right requires an investment: The Canadian government is spending $1 billion this year on language classes, help with finding jobs and other integration efforts. But he said bringing in newcomers is crucial to ward off a looming labor shortage given Canada's aging population.
"We strongly believe immigration is key to our future success in Canada," he said.
Hussen also praised a Canadian refugee resettlement system in which, alongside the government's program, private citizens and organizations commit to supporting refugees for a year. The country has found these refugees do better easing into Canadian life. Hussen said the United Kingdom and several Latin American countries are modeling new programs on the Canadian approach, though he hasn't yet fielded inquiries from the United States.
Hussen said with more refugees displaced globally than ever before in modern history, Canada plans to remain a key player in resettlement: "More people are on the move, and we can't turn our heads away."