Three dimensions of immigration policy are 1. the purpose of the policy, 2. how it is administered and 3. how changes can be made. The last is what Gilles Paquet describes as a “wicked problem.”( http://www.socialsciences.uottawa.ca/grei-rgei/eng/documents/G_Paquet_AbouttheDumbfoundingFINALJUNE2011.pdf). One reason is that the immigration lobby groups of consultants, lawyers and certain organizations, especially those concerned with multiculturalism, have captured the policy process. Federal politics supports this. Politicians find that there are votes to be won by appealing to particular immigrant groups. The majority won in the recent federal election resulted in part from Conservatives appealing to and winning the support of immigrant communities, especially in Ontario and BC, support which had previously gone to Liberal and NDP candidates.
I agree that there is need for change and that change will be difficult to effect. Paquet recommends an indirect approach (“the best bet may be to scheme virtuously by acting in an oblique fashion”) to what he describes as a policy of “massive and indiscriminate immigration over the past 25 years.” Below I flag some of the pitfalls which may obstruct the process of change and need to be addressed in manufacturing a consensus for a revised policy.
1. Immigration is not about the 250,000 – 280,000 persons admitted to Canada in recent years as permanent residents, but about those who come as temporary workers and foreign students. The latter two categories can now more easily convert their temporary status to a permanent one and then apply for entry by family members. Immigration policy has to address all three categories as well as the 30 million persons who enter Canada as tourists each year, some of whom may remain illegally in Canada.
2. When the current inflow is described as massive and indiscriminate, some care is required. Relative to the size of the Canadian population the current intake at about 1% is far smaller than occurred in earlier periods of Canadian history, for example the early 1900s when the population was smaller, and in some years since 1950. In relative terms the current inflow remains at a low level historically. Contrasting the current higher intake in Canada relative to the US ignores the fact that the US has an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in comparison with the guesstimated 500,000 illegals in Canada.
3. Describing the current inflow as indiscriminate is tricky. In the past the gates were often wide open, while today there is a point system which attempts to assess the applicants for permanent residency. The argument has to be made that the present screening process is ineffective and a revised point system used or poorly administered. Here the advice of current and past immigration officials is vital to understand what happens during the application process. My understanding is that many applicants are not interviewed by a Canadian official.
4. The origin and treatment of illegal immigrants requires discussion. At present, it receives attention when boatloads of Asian immigrants arrive in BC. In fact these arrivals who claim refugee status are a fraction of those who arrive at Canadian borders, often by air. In 2008 and 2009 there were about 700 to 800 asylum claims per month at Canadian airports. Illegals and asylum seekers are a mixed category. Some illegals enter legally perhaps as tourists, foreign workers, students or tourists and overstay their permitted time in Canada. Some enter illegally and then become legal by applying for refugee status. At present the process works so that Canada does not fully control its borders.
5. If a country’s sovereignty means anything today, it includes controlling what crosses it’s borders. We monitor and control the nature and type of goods that enter; we try to monitor financial inflows; we have difficulty in monitoring the inflow of services especially those which enter electronically. Food for example is subject to safety checks at the border as are some products considered as environmentally dangerous. It should not be impossible to persuade voters that entry of persons should be controlled at the border for safety reasons and as a way of protecting sovereignty, especially since 9/11. The policy needs to be clearly stated, and enforceable with measures taken to prevent entry by those who do not conform to the requirements.
6. The ageing Canadian population and labour force arguments for immigration can be addressed by looking at other countries which do not increase their population and mange these issues. Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Singapore and certain Middle Eastern countries have used a variety of policy measures. Foreign workers are allowed into Switzerland and Singapore for example to provide labour services without the promise of permanent residency and citizenship. When their contracts end, they return home. Benefits also accrue to the foreigners’ countries in terms of remittances. The inflow of foreign workers is one alternative to outsourcing work abroad which is another way of addressing the labour force shortages; here the payment is made directly to the foreign country in terms of wages paid.
7. Assessing the qualifications of foreign applicants is an administrative issue which immigration officials are best equipped to address providing they are given enforceable conditions. It is not surprising that persons trained abroad in fields such as medicine, dentistry, optometry, nursing, physics, chemistry and some aspects of the social sciences may not be exposed to the latest developments in their respective fields, and are not able to gain employment in Canada without further training. As indirect evidence, I am aware of people who have gone to developing countries to receive medical treatment, where it is cheaper, and on return have had to have further treatment to remedy the procedures received abroad. Drivers and unskilled workers will probably have little problem, aside from language, from practicing their skills in Canada if these are the target group for immigration policy.
8. The small proportion of the current annual intake of immigrants who are the principal applicants with the skills which Canada currently wants, and the lagging economic wellbeing of those who have come since the 1980s is a persuasive argument revealing problems of the current policy. But caution is needed. A longer run perspective shows that we are all immigrants of the first, second, third or nth generation, yes even native and aboriginal Canadians if one goes far enough back in time. I am a first generation immigrant, my children second and grandchildren third. In my early years in Canada I was a net consumer of government services – I received more from the country (education and health care for example) than I paid in taxes. In later years my tax payments exceeded the cost of services received – at least it felt like that although I have not made the calculation. As a retired person, I am not sure where the balance stands. Similar calculations made for the cost of immigrants, current and past, would reveal many different results depending on the examples used. If it is shown that recent immigrants during their early years in Canada are a net cost to the country, then this suggests that revised screening criteria are used. However I would expect that applying a similar test to past immigrants and the children of recent immigrants at different periods after their arrival in Canada would show a variety of results. These types of findings should be used with care.
As Jeffrey Kaye has written, millions of people are on the move worldwide. Ease of movement is enhanced by falling transportation and communications costs requiring individual countries to revise their immigration policies. Canada has to manufacture a consensus for reform which will counter the strong lobbyists that presently control the policy levers.