Canada’s Immigration Policy Questioned

Canada's immigration policy questioned
Terror arrests put focus on screening, laws for asylum

June 11, 2006

TORONTO — Canada has long prided itself on 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 immigrant families in an alleged terrorism plot.

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 exaggerated, and its ambassador to the United States, Michael Wilson, has proposed bringing a so-called myth-busting delegation to Washington.

“Is the process perfect? No,” Wilson said 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, 2001, 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 members of Congress have seized the occasion to complain.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, asserted that Canada has “a disproportionate number of Al Qaeda … because of their very liberal immigration laws, because of how political asylum is granted so easily.”

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, said 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.”

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.

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.