(Policy papers 2012-2013)
Canada needs immigrants, but would-be Canadians who look at our policies and processes might think they are designed to keep people away. The admission system is fragmented, complicated, confusing, and slow, and many newcomers who make it to our shores never get the opportunities for a better life they were led to expect. The Conservative government recognizes the need for change but the measures it has pushed through, without adequate public debate, are mostly wrong-headed. We need to look at immigration from a national perspective, not just from the viewpoint of a federal or provincial government, an employer or an educational institution. Immigration reform must be accomplished in a way that strengthens our social fabric and is consistent with our fundamental values of the rule of law, equality, and fairness.
Le Canada a besoin d’immigrés, mais les Canadiens potentiels qui regardent notre politique et nos procédures peuvent penser que ces dernières ont pour but d’éloigner les gens. Le système d’admissions est fragmenté, compliqué, peu clair et lent, et beaucoup de nouveaux venus qui atteignent nos rivages ne peuvent jamais avoir la vie meilleure qu’on leur avait fait présager. Le gouvernement conservateur reconnait que nous avons besoin d’un changement, mais beaucoup des mesures qu’il a fait passer sans débat publique approprié vont dans la mauvaise direction. Nous devons considérer l’immigration d’une perspective nationale, pas seulement du point de vue d’un gouvernement fédéral ou provincial, de celui d’un employeur ou d’une institution éducative. Il faut réaliser des réformes de l’immigration qui rendraient notre tissu social plus fort et qui seraient cohérentes avec nos valeurs fondamentales des règles de droit, d’égalité et d’équité.
Immigrants built Canada and continue to enrich Canadian society. By 2030, 100% of our population growth will come through immigration (already about 60% does). Even now, immigration accounts for almost all net labour force growth. And we will likely be accepting substantially higher levels of economic immigrants, given projected shortages of skilled labour — estimated to be some 1 million jobs over the next 10 years.
But we are doing a very poor job of ensuring that new Canadians have real equality of opportunity. The evidence is clear that the latest wave of immigrants, although many are better educated than their predecessors, have more trouble getting jobs, reuniting their families, and finding proper housing and health services. The huge mismatch between the skills of new Canadians and their actual employment here is astonishing.
No fewer than 41% of immigrants with university degrees are now in chronic low-income categories, compared with only 13% in 1993, before the immigration laws were changed to encourage more educated immigrants to come to Canada. Especially among the young, there is a real sense of exclusion, and some disaffected newcomers lash out against a society that fails to give them equal opportunity in practice.
The federal government has recognized the need for urgent action to improve the process by which people immigrate to Canada. An immigration system with more than 50 streams that generates a backlog of 1 million applications, with many in the queue for five or six years, is a dysfunctional nightmare and an embarrassment to a country like Canada that increasingly depends on interconnectedness with the rest of the world. For the ones who make it through the byzantine process and arrive here, the recognition of their educational credentials and work experience takes many more years — or may never happen.
Ottawa’s plans to eliminate the backlog and focus on the employability of new immigrants appear reasonable from the short-term perspective. But good national policy must accommodate a longer-term perspective and serve the national interest, not just a fickle business cycle. The government has once again taken the deplorable but all-too-familiar approach of suppressing debate in Parliament and rushing through changes that would normally merit widespread public input and discussion.
First, eliminating the backlog by wiping hundreds of thousands of people off the waiting list that they have so patiently endured because of Canadian administrative failure is completely unacceptable. With this step, the federal government betrays an astounding level of arrogance and insensitivity, targeting those least able to protest, that should deeply concern every Canadian. The federal government is acting contrary to the fundamental values of fairness and openness. It is disgracing us internationally and reinforcing an unfavourable image of Canada as a nation turning inward, away from the global community.
Second, the government plans to address the increasing short-term shortages of skilled workers, especially in the natural resources sector, by expanding two immigration streams, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the Provincial Nominee Program. These programs allow employers to hire specific immigrants. We need to consider employer-sponsored immigration within the context of longer-term goals. Among other things, this means rethinking a particularly controversial new measure that allow employers to pay immigrants 15% less than the prevailing wage. The current shortage of employees with certain skills would be better addressed by allowing market forces to push wages up and encouraging more people to train for those occupations, rather than clumsy and unnecessary intervention to suppress wages. In addition, the government should end the unduly harsh and arbitrary requirement that temporary workers must return home after four years. It has led to the unacceptable situation of a few hundred thousand people living undocumented in Canada after overstaying their visas.
Third, to ensure that immigration reforms gain the confidence of Canadians and serve the long-term national interest, we should have had substantial parliamentary debate. Many of these issues deserve careful review, such as whether placing more emphasis on knowledge of French and English may inappropriately exclude immigrants from the emerging market; the pros and cons of giving employers increased powers to select temporary foreign workers; how to ensure that temporary workers have a fair and clear track to full citizenship; and how to protect workers against exploitation, abuse, and dangerous working conditions.
Finally, across-the-board budget cuts in immigration — as in other government operations — are unprincipled and make no sense from an economic management perspective. They are leading to bizarre decisions such as the closure of an immigration-processing centre in Tehran and the transfer of its services to Ankara, Turkey, a 1,600-kilometre drive away. At a time when we know we need more immigrants, we should be hiring more staff in our offices abroad, not closing up shop. Building up overseas staff would also be a far more efficient and fair way of processing applications already in the system. Some efficiencies can be found here at home: for instance, by setting up a single Canadian national office to replace the patchwork of too-often ineffective provincial government offices that recruit international students to come to Canadian universities.
With the latest changes, our national immigration system is becoming even more fragmented. We urgently need to re-establish a balanced and coherent approach across Canada that allows us to streamline and accommodate the various provincial needs and employer demands within a national framework. For example, federal-provincial agreements on settlement funding are a particular source of irritation; other provinces resent the Canada-Quebec agreement of 1991 that guarantees that province a minimum proportion of national funds regardless of how many immigrants actually come to Quebec, so an immigrant arriving in Montreal receives substantially more federal support than one arriving in Toronto or Vancouver. The federal government must do better at providing the necessary assistance, with individual attention, to help all new Canadians maximize their potential: not just language training and other settlement services, but internship programs that provide local experience and expeditious mechanisms to recognize foreign credentials and work history. Pre-clearing foreign credentials at the time of application was one useful improvement among the recent package of measures.
The part of our immigration system that rules on refugee claims also requires reform. Some of the federal government’s changes head in the right direction, such as tightening up some administrative time frames and replacing patronage appointees to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) with more neutral public servants to do the initial determination of whether an applicant is a refugee.
But the government is proceeding with many measures that reflect a misguided and unsubstantiated view that there is an enormous problem with bogus refugees creeping across our borders or arriving by the boatload, attempting to circumvent the clogged regular immigration system and making unfounded refugee claims. Legitimate appeals of rejected claims will now be unduly limited; severe restrictions will be put on consideration of humanitarian and compassionate reasons justifying Canada’s protection of persons who cannot quite satisfy the very strict international definition of a refugee. And the government continues to fill the positions in the Appeal Division of the IRB with inappropriate patronage appointments, often of uncertain quality.
Judging from my experience as a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board for seven years, truly bogus or manifestly unfounded claims are made by only a tiny fraction of the some 28,000 refugees who arrive each year. Surely we should just do a better job of identifying these few claimants and ensuring that they do not stay in Canada, undocumented and under the radar. Instead, the government’s changes will sideswipe a broader group of refugee claimants who may be having trouble proving their case but deserve a second hearing. Other reforms clearly offend basic democratic values and the rule of law, such as the expansion, without sufficient justification, of the arbitrary powers of the minister of immigration to nullify refugee claims.
For many refugee claimants, the challenge is to show not only that they fear persecution but that their fear is justified, and that they would face certain specific risks by going back to their country. The criteria can be overwhelmingly difficult to meet, so Canada has long recognized that our refugee protection system must include some flexibility. Claimants who are turned down for failing to meet the definition can ask for a review of the humanitarian and compassionate elements of their case. This second review could be combined with the first to save time and money, but the federal government has arbitrarily chosen to go in the opposite direction, keeping the two tracks but cutting back on eligibility for re-examinations of refused claims.