Critics Say Canada Too Immigrant Friendly

Critics Say Canada Too Immigrant-Friendly

TORONTO (AP) – Canada has long prided itself for opening its doors wider than any nation to immigrants and asylum-seekers, but that tradition is coming under intense scrutiny – at home and across the U.S. border – after the arrests of 17 men from Muslim immigrant families in an alleged terror plot.

Ambassador Michael Wilson: Canada has “a very good system for screening every applicant.” (CP)

Critics contend that too many newcomers are admitted without thorough screening, that asylum-seekers are routinely allowed to move about freely before their claims of persecution are reviewed, and that Canada's official policy of multiculturalism slows the assimilation of immigrant communities.

The government says the accusations of laxity are off-base, and its ambassador to the United States, Michael Wilson, has proposed bringing a “myth-busting'' delegation to Washington to counter them.

“Is the process perfect? No,'' Wilson told The Associated Press on Friday. “But I think the results are pretty darned good. … We have a reputation for fairness and compassion, but we've also got a very good system for screening every applicant.''

Wilson noted that Canada tightened immigration procedures after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. But no further changes are planned because of the recent arrests.

“We're standing by our policies,'' said Lesley Harmer, spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Monte Solberg. The department hopes to admit the full quota of immigrants this year – roughly 255,000 – to help address a labor shortage, she said.

The Bush administration has congratulated Canada for the arrests, but some congressmen have seized the occasion to complain.

Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, asserted that Canada has “a disproportionate number of al-Qaida. … because of their very liberal immigration laws (and) because of how political asylum is granted so easily.'' And Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana said many Canadian immigrants don't share “traditional Canadian values.''

Criticism comes from some Canadians as well.

David Harris, a former Canadian security official, suggested this week that the country suspend its immigration and refugee program until it reduces security risks. James Bissett, a former Canadian diplomat and immigration official, says the asylum system is the most open in the world and – as a result – is “the most serious threat to North American security.''

“Anyone in the world can come to Canada and claim they've been persecuted,'' said Bissett. “We fingerprint and photograph you, and tell you to come back for a hearing, and meanwhile you're free to move around, to work or get welfare. It's become a magnet for people who want to get around our immigration rules.''

Wilson defended the system, contending that Canada's ratio of accepting asylum-seekers was roughly the same as the United States'.

Canada has the highest per capita immigrant admission rate of any major nation, according to experts – admitting more than 262,000 last year, including about 35,000 refugees.

The United States, with nearly 10 times Canada's population, admitted 53,813 refugees last year and about 1.1 million legal immigrants overall.

Canada only rarely detains asylum-seekers. In the United States that practice is routine – and has roused the ire of human rights groups who say detainees are often held too long, with too little legal assistance.

“We want to do everything we can to help, but we have to be sure we know who you are,'' said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration. “There's a much more liberal policy in Canada.''

Gloria Nafziger, refugee coordinator for Amnesty International Canada, said the screening system was sufficiently rigorous.

“Canada does detain people, when it has questions, but detention in the U.S. is much more routine, and the detention experience there is horrific,'' she said. “We need to be more concerned about how we integrate newcomers into our society. Let's be sure we have policies that don't alienate them.''

The issue of integration has been hotly debated since the arrests, with commentators and civic leaders divided over whether Canada's multiculturalism policy strengthens ethnic communities or prolongs their isolation.

Tarek Fatah of the Muslim-Canadian Congress said a liberal immigration policy is crucial to the country's economic future, but he said the government should work harder to teach newcomers the values of a secular, parliamentary democracy.

“Multiculturalism can very easily provide fertile soil for nurturing our primitiveness, rather than celebrating reason and our common humanity,'' Fatah wrote in a recent Toronto Star column. “We risk creating a fragmented nation, divided into 21st century tribes.''

Martin Collacott, a counterterrorism expert and former Canadian ambassador in the Middle East, said a strong current of political correctness – and a fear of offending immigrant voters – has discouraged reassessment of multiculturalism.

“We should continue to welcome people from all different backgrounds, but that doesn't mean we want them to continue their loyalties to all the old conflicts overseas,'' he said. “There are serious problems here, and we should be looking into them.''

Defenders of Canada's policies warn against overreacting to the arrests.

“There's a kind of panic mentality that surrounds events like this,'' said Jeffrey Reitz, a University of Toronto sociology professor, who noted that homegrown terrorists have targeted countries with a variety of immigration and integration policies.

“Moving in a negative way on these policies would further aggravate domestic intergroup relations without improving our security,'' he said.