Immigration policy is at the forefront of debate in the US, Australia, New Zealand and western European countries where members of anti-immigrant parties are receiving an increasing number of votes. The topic is likely to be debated in the next Canadian federal election.
Canadan immigration policy contains several objectives, such as for economic migrants, family members and refugees. These often compete with each other for a share of the current annual inflow of 250,000 persons, a factor often ignored in public discourse, where different parties lobby for one aspect only. Almost absent from discussion, except by the Population Institute of Canada, is the desired size of the total population, where immigration is a contributing factor.
The following argues that debate is needed on the future size of the Canadian population and how each of the components of immigration policy fits into this total. Discussion is also required on policy towards illegal immigrants.
Selection for the annual inflow of approximately 250,000 permanent residents contains segments for economic and business persons, family members and refugees. A related policy deals with temporary workers and students. In addition, those entering Canada each year include tourists and temporary visitors. The total is about 30.5 million people a year, 30 million of which are tourists.
Each segment of newcomers has a specific purpose. Economic and business persons are chosen for the immediate contribution they can make to the Canadian economy. The selection criteria stress the attributes of education, language and skills training; these persons are likely to become active members of the labour force. They are accompanied by family members who may become employed at a later date.
The next segment, family members, represents relatives of those who have previously immigrated to Canada. Human rights considerations make family reunification a priority in Canada and other countries. For example, family related permanent residents to the US in 2006 accounted for 63% of total entrants. A problem for officials is verifying who is a family member and what relationships to include and exclude.
Refugees, the third segment, enter Canada as asylum seekers who become refugees once their application is approved. Again, humanitarian considerations underlie the basis for accepting refugees. Some are admitted by being sponsored by someone in Canada or by being referred by an international agency – details are available on the CIC website. Others appear at the border and request asylum. They enter a process that determines whether their application is approved and they become a refugee, or are rejected and must leave the country. Rejections can be appealed, and the process to a final decision has recently been expedited but does not come into effect until 2011. To-date the refugee process has been a lucrative industry for immigration lawyers and consultants.
The related policy of attracting temporary foreign workers is aimed at job vacancies that exist and are not being filled. The workers and their families return home at the completion of their contracts. Foreign students are also expected to return home after finishing their studies. In both these cases, provisions known as the Canadian Experience Class makes it easier for these two groups to apply for permanent residency without leaving Canada.
In sum, there are a range of objectives, some conflicting, associated with the intake of persons as permanent residents, temporary foreign residents and students. How does this play out in the debate on immigration policy?
The demographic deficit
One topic is the ageing Canadian population and declining birth rate that some argue can be corrected by immigration. The facts are as follows. First, there would be no population without immigration, including native Canadians who came to North America an estimated 30,000 years ago across a land bridge from Siberia. All Canadians are first, second, third or more generation immigrants.
Second, the contribution of current annual immigration inflows to the active labour force is small. Among the economic and business migrants, only the principal applicants are likely to have the education and training that will allow them to find immediate employment. Associated family members may enter the labour force at a later date. In 2008 for example, only 17% of those accepted as permanent residents were principal applicants in the economic category, that is those who were likely to find immediate employment. They would add 0.7% to the Canadian labour force.
A third factor is whether there are alternatives ways to deal with an ageing population and a declining share of the population in the workforce. Some countries have limited their population size by allowing in temporary workers who become a safety valve when there is a labour shortage. Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Switzerland are examples of this. Canada uses temporary foreign workers to meet the demand for agricultural, construction and home care workers, and many of the 12 million illegal migrants in the US act as temporary (and sometimes permanent) workers.
An alternative to importing workers is to outsource work. Obviously this cannot be done for homecare, nursing and services which have to be delivered on site, but modern communications allow many types of work to be undertaken outside a country. Other alternatives to alleviate labour shortages include substituting capital for labour and raising wage rates to attract people when there are labour shortages.
In the past, countries have experienced substantial population decreases and survived. As examples, Maoist, Stalinist and Nazi massacres killed millions of peoples in their respective countries. The population of Ireland decreased from an estimated 8.2million in 1841 to 4.5million in 1900 due to death and emigration. The global flu pandemic in 1918 killed between 20 and 40 million people. And western European countries had high casualty rates among the military and civilian populations during both world wars. This is not to condone what happened but to show that countries have recovered from circumstances far worse than Canada faces today.
In sum, using immigration policy to address the age structure of the workforce in Canada fails to consider other influences that can affect the outcome.
A related aspect is how immigration affects the overall size of the population. Annual immigration inflows and outflows along with birth and death rates are the main determinants of the country’s population size. While there is little that can be done to influence birth rates, although governments may try with fiscal incentives and exhortation to promote or prevent procreation, and even less can be done about death rates in the short run, net immigration policy is the main lever to alter population size.
Overall population size is rarely debated. Since I arrived in Canada in 1955, the population has increased from about 15 million to 34 million today. Will it more than double again to around 70 million in the next 60 years? No-one knows but more importantly there is almost no discussion of what the target should be, or what role immigration should play. The closest public debate comes to this question is discussion over the demographic deficit.
Note also, immigration statistics measure gross not net immigration since those leaving the country permanently are not recorded. It is likely that the annual target of 250,000 permanent residents is not reached when outflows are counted. A search of “emigration from Canada” on the CIC website only brings up sites of emigration to Canada. Periodically, there are references to a brain drain from Canada and it is likely that more educated Canadians are the ones that leave, so that policies to retain educated Canadians may make sense. A further issue to consider is the handling of illegal or undocumented migrants.
The number of illegals presently in Canada is for obvious reasons unknown. These persons, their employers and support groups are unlikely to identify them. The US has an estimated 12 million illegals. If Canada has ten percent of this figure it would be over a million; a former Minister of Immigration estimated 500,000.
How do they arrive? Some are persons who come as tourists, temporary foreign workers and students with visas where required, and fail to leave. Others arrive by land, sea and air and request asylum. These get a hearing. Some may be rejected outright, like those arriving at the Canadian-US border where both countries agree to take back all applicants from the other country. This is part of a safe country policy where applicants in general will have difficulty in being accepted if they come from what is considered a safe country.
The asylum seeker aims to reach a Canadian airport, land crossing or maritime border (a port or territorial waters). Canada is unable to stop ships outside territorial waters and once the ship is inside, persons can ask for asylum and must be treated the same way as if they had arrived at a land border and sought asylum.
Shipping persons into territorial waters is akin to smuggling but with the difference that once inside the persons can request asylum. The approximately 500 Tamils who arrived by boat in Canada in August 2010 is a fraction of those arriving at airports and seaports each year. Canada receives about 30,000 refugees claimants a year and accepts about 10,000.
Details of the Tamils’ journey and financing provide useful information for border officials. According to the Globe and Mail (August 28, 2010), their voyage was carefully planned. The asylum seekers travelled on tourist visas from Sri Lanka to Thailand where they boarded a boat which eventually arrived off the coast of BC. News reports suggest that these persons paid around $45,000 to make the trip. Further investigation is needed of how these voyages were financed. If paid for in advance, it means that the individuals were fairly well off. If financed, then the likelihood is that they will have to pay off the lenders in Canada or abroad, a situation which often leads to a form of indentured labour (a modern form of slavery) for the borrower. Boat arrivals are often accused of queue jumping, but this is the case for any asylum seeker that manages to reach Canada on their own without being sponsored.
Immigration is likely to be an issue in the next Canadian federal election. For skilled immigrants, Canada will have to compete with other countries. If the policy aims to increase the size of the active labour force (skilled workers), then family members and refugees are not much help. If humanitarian considerations are foremost then these two categories make sense. Overall population size in the future and the policy towards illegal immigrants also needs to be debated. If other countries clamp down on immigration, flows will go to places where legal and illegal entry is easier.